Certainties are in short supply as the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League kicks off this weekend after a summer of sweeping change.
The current tumult had its genesis last May. Surprise mergers of Al Shabab, Al Ahli and promoted Dubai CSC to create Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club plus Sharjah’s amalgamation with First Division League-neighbours Al Shaab brought an era of austerity glaringly into life.
Declining oil prices and shrinking largesse from owners has caught up with a once-free-spending competition, whose number has dropped from 14 to 12 teams for the first time since 2011/12. Allied with the UAE’s painful failure this month to make World Cup 2018 and the fact a two-year run of providing beaten AFC Champions League finalists is at an end, its competitors must battle a narrative of genuine regression for the first time since professionalism’s introduction in 2008/09.
This drive for self-sustainability has seen Al Ain’s ¤3 million (Dh12.3m) purchase of starting Sweden striker Marcus Berg from Panathinaikos the standout transaction. Quite the drop from Ahli’s ¤17m (Dh70m) capture of Senegal forward Moussa Sow from Fenerbahce two years ago.
The move from bull to bear market – Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro moving to Flamengo from Ahli and Sharjah cashing in on Al Hilal’s move for Venezuela centre forward Gelmin Rivas – adds an unpredictable edge. Whether this becomes a welcome switch in status will be decided by the quality of games on offer during the coming months.
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On the pitch, this slow-burning, transformative trend was evidenced last term by Henk ten Cate’s freewheeling Al Jazira breaking the interminable duopoly of Al Ain and – the now defunct – Ahli in revitalising style for the first time since their prior success in 2010/11. This latest triumph was earned with the most points (68) and wins (22) since the division turned professional.
Such enlivening statistics provide a ray of hope in troubled times.
After the adroit Pride of Abu Dhabi prepared for December’s Club World Cup on home soil by adding UAE forward Ahmed Khalil, ex-France anchorman Lassana Diarra, Uzbekistan winger Sardor Rashidov and Brazilian attacker Romarinho on free transfers, a new era of one-team dominance may await.
A long way back for the established powers beckons after shock second-placed finishers Al Wasl retained coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena and batted away interest from across the Arabian Gulf in brilliant Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima.
The new Shabab Al Ahli are yet to bring in a single player as trophy-hoarding boss Cosmin Olaroiu navigates troubled waters.
In Al Ain, 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman again resisted European overtures but there have been few other positives since boss Zoran Mamic’s February poaching from Al Nassr in Riyadh.
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Coaching changes dominate for President’s Cup holders Al Wahda and the team they defeated, Al Nasr. The Clarets welcome beaten 2014 ACL finalist Laurentiu Reghecampf, while Cesare Prandelli’s coaching career has slumped since leading Italy to Euro 2012’s showpiece.
Al Dhafra have banked on Iraq’s Mohannad Abdul-Raheem to replace the goals of Syria forward Omar Khrbin. In contrast, amalgamated Sharjah have left their foreign business ludicrously late – although Wednesday night’s deal for emerging Chile midfielder Cesar Pinares could be the window’s best.
At the bottom, an expected play-off because of the move back to 14 for 2018/19 makes the situations of promoted Ajman, Hatta, Dibba Al Fujairah and Emirates Club potentially less parlous.
But like everything else in this top flight adapting to a new reality, ironclad predictions remain folly until the action unfolds.