After several years of has-beens and never-beens, Al Ain have at last landed a man fit to follow in Asamoah Gyan’s exalted footsteps.
The acquisition of Sweden centre forward Marcus Berg both marks a major upgrade for the goal-shy Boss and shows serious intent to end a two-year spell without a trophy – an intolerable wait for the UAE’s most-decorated club.
With Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira already acquiring Whites hot shot Ahmed Khalil, plus teeing up deals for Uzbekistan winger Sardor Rashidov and zestful Brazilian forward Romarinho from defunct Qatari club El Jaish, they have also answered a direct challenge head on from their resurgent ‘Al Clasico’ rivals.
Such shows of power and ambition had become things of the past.
It was a masterstroke in July 2015 to bank a record-breaking €20 million (Dh81m) from the Chinese Super League’s Shanghai SIPG for the declining Gyan.
The body of the Ghana legend, who had notched an iconic 95 times in 83 top-flight run-outs, had started to fail.
Yet every attempt to secure an apt successor ended in disappointment. Initial replacement Emmanuel Emenike of Nigeria came with a petulant reputation, which he showed no desire to confound.
Brazilian Douglas (below) possessed a predatory instinct which brought him to attention at Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima, though there was to be no way back once a critical penalty ruinously flew into the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium’s stands during the 2016 AFC Champions League final defeat to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Ivorian Yannick Boli was embarrassingly paraded as a new buy before terms were sealed last January, leading to errant Saudi Arabia wild child Nasser Al Shamrani’s unplanned last-minute arrival on loan from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.
Each proved inefficacious. But Berg’s purchase now feels distinctly different, with Al Ain again shopping in the luxury section.
This is a centre forward who topped the Superleague Greece’s 2016/17 scoring charts, moving his overall tally onto 73 goals in 116 games for Panathinaikos.
Berg leads the line for a Sweden side who currently sit top of their World Cup 2018 qualifying group, ahead of France’s collection of superstars following victory earlier this month – a game he started.
And if you can seamlessly replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, anything is possible in the Garden City.
Know more about Sport360 Application
In the world of football today, where inflated price tags and salaries go hand in hand with inflated egos and a depressing lack of loyalty, it’s refreshing to encounter a player like Sebastian Tagliabue who is happily in tune with reality.
The prolific Al Wahda marksman is his own harshest critic. Having claimed the Arabian Gulf League’s golden boot two seasons ago with a mesmerising 25 goals in 24 games, the 32-year-old assumes responsibility for the Clarets’ worst league finish during his four years at the club of fifth last season.
Considering he still managed 19 goals in 20 games, it’s fair to say Tagliabue is a perhaps a bit of a perfectionist.
But he knows the chances he missed in 2016/17 could have seen the Abu Dhabi giants bridge the 16-point gap to Al Ain in fourth and challenge for an elusive AGL title – something the Al Nahyan Stadium outfit have not claimed since 2010.
“The key point is I didn’t score,” said the affable Argentine.
“It was not us. I have more chances this year than last year and I miss a lot. I think this year the key was Tagliabue, the bad misses. I know I was not the same as last year but I was not bad. I had 19 goals in 20 games.
“Of course we have defensive mistakes but this is normal. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea have these problems, everyone has mistakes. But I think if I score 30 per cent of the chances I miss this year we would be much different than where we finished.”
Chances were squandered with alarming regularity by Wahda last season, with nine games out of 26 drawn – their joint most in a campaign in the last nine editions since the AGL went professional in 2008/09.
They were held by lowly Emirates Club, Dibba Al Fujairah, Ittihad kalba, Hatta and Al Shabab (twice) during the course of the campaign, while late goals conceded against would-be title rivals Al Ahli, Al Ain and Al Wasl saw them slide down the table.
Even though they ended the campaign on a high with a thumping 3-0 win over Al Nasr to lift the President’s Cup, it was not enough to persuade the club to offer former Atletico Madrid, Japan and Mexico supremo Javier Aguirre a new deal.
Romanian Laurentiu Reghecampf looks set to be confirmed as Aguirre’s successor in the coming weeks, and Tagliabue believes the former Steaua Bucurest and Al Hilal coach will find he has a talented young squad to work with when he arrives at Al Nahyan.
Even though Chile maverick Jorge Valdivia has left, Tagliabue will be joined by Hungary international Balazsz Dzsudzsak again next season, while the veteran striker is excited by the plethora of talented youngsters at the club.
And, much like Abu Dhabi rivals Al Jazira enjoyed success last season while favouring youth, Tagliabue believes Wahda’s gifted young crop can help fire the club to AGL glory next year.
Tagliabue added: “I hope next season will be better. I’m sure we will because the young players this year learn a lot. They have a lot of experience, like in the Champions League.
“Ahmed Al Akbari. He will be much better next year. There are a lot of guys like him, Khalil (Ibrahim), Mohamed Al Akbari, Mohammad Abdulbasit, Ahmed Rashid. Salem Sultan played almost a whole season so I think next year we will have a better team than this year.”
The Pride of Abu Dhabi found themselves on the brink of a relegation battle when Dutchman Henk ten Cate took charge in December 2015. His stewardship saw them recover to finish seventh while they also won the President’s Cup.
Ten Cate’s one black mark was leading the team to finish bottom of their 2016 AFC Champions League group with a solitary point from six games.
But his ploy of bleeding youngsters on the continent gave them precious exposure to top level football and ultimately helped pave the way to a first AGL title in six years last campaign. And Tagliabue insists Wahda can follow their fierce rivals’ example.
“Yes. This is what I mean,” he says when asked if Wahda’s young players can use the experience from this season for future success.
“You see Al Jazira were horrible the previous season but even so they still played in the President’s Cup final. So I hope next year we can be champions.
“Jazira last season gave chances for their young players and they won the league this year. I hope next year the young players of Al Wahda can win the league or at least qualify for the Champions League, or win another cup.”
With such an envious stock of bright young players bursting through, Wahda’s future certainly looks positive.
Tagliabue’s own future will be under scrutiny too as he enters next season under the final year of his contract.
Yet he and his family are supremely content in the UAE capital. His wife, Mariana, and two sons have lives here and that is as important to the Buenos Aires native as his own career.
“My family is most important to me and they love Abu Dhabi and Al Wahda,” said Tagliabue, who revealed his young sons, Facundo and Gustavo, give dad some grief when either he doesn’t score or the team fail to win.
“When we lose they kill me at home. ‘Why daddy we lose’, I think they are one of the biggest fans of the club. They love it here in Abu Dhabi so I hope I can renew my contract here with Al Wahda for a few years more.
“My family is very happy here and we don’t want to leave. If I have to leave now, it would only be about the money and only China could increase what I’m earning, but I have no contact with clubs. I have one more year here.
“I like Abu Dhabi. I like Al Wahda. Football is important for sure but the most important is my family. My kids have a lot of activities here, they enjoy the weather, enjoy the life, my wife has her life here, so we are happy from the first month we arrived here.
“When the football and the life go in the same way you cannot ask anything more. Now, in this time, my life, my family and the football is going in the same way.”
Tagliabue’s influence on Wahda since arriving from Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab Riyadh in the summer of 2013 has been significant to say the least. The man who once dreamed of turning out for boyhood club River Plate but could never climb out of Argentina’s fourth tier has notched a scintillating 87 times in 91 AGL appearances.
Add that in with 20 goals from 38 ACL, President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup games – Tagliabue has found the back of the net 112 times in 126 total appearances for the Clarets.
After finishing top of the AGL scoring charts two years ago, he was usurped by lethal Jazira forward Ali Mabkhout in 2016/17.
The UAE talisman’s scarcely believable feat of 33 goals in 25 games saw him become the first Emirati to top the AGL scoring charts in the modern era, and the first in nine years since Al Ahli’s Faisal Khalil.
But although he praised the 26-year-old, who has often sparked debate as to whether he could make the grade in the elite leagues of Europe, Tagliabue believes the culture gap is too wide for Mabkhout or Al Ain maestro Omar Abdulrahman to succeed in the more traditional football heartlands.
“No,” says Tagliabue bluntly when asked if he can see Mabkhout profiting at a higher level.
“It’s very difficult for the local players, whether in the UAE or Saudi, to play in Europe. Not just because of the football. They have a different lifestyle.
“For me there is not one player in Saudi, Qatar or the UAE who can play in Europe. It’s about the culture. It’s not because of the mentality or talent. Today the national team is the best it’s been in my four years here, I have no doubt about that. But there is not one player who can play in Europe.”
Of Mabkhout, he added: “I have to say congratulations to him. He’s showing for four years he’s the best striker in the UAE. He deserves to be top scorer, no doubt. And he deserves to be a champion with Al Jazira.
“Even though they may not have the best team in the league, they were the best team in the league. It’s the best thing for a striker to be champion and top scorer at the same time.”
Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira are prepared to field offers for Brazilian winger Leonardo just six months since buying him.
Leonardo, 30, scored six times in 14 top-flight run-outs after he was recruited from 2016 AFC Champions League winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea for a cut-price €3.8 million (Dh14.7m).
Despite making a positive impact in Henk ten Cate’s resurgent side, intermediaries and agents have been informed he could be made available for loan or permanent transfer as changes to the four-player non-Emirati quota are considered.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi are close to confirming the exciting capture of dynamic Uzbekistan winger Sardor Rashidov from dissolved Qatari club El Jaish.
They have already wrapped up impressive free transfers for ex-France defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra and Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil – the 15-goal second-top scorer during World Cup 2018 qualification, for the UAE.
A potential new team for Leonardo could be found in Saudi Arabia, where Al Nassr have been strongly linked following last week’s decision to increase the foreign quota there to six from four. For Jazira, they are exploring the possibility of securing a switch for Jaish’s electric Brazilian forward Romarinho.
The 26-year-old has rocketed in 40 Qatar Stars League goals in 72 appearances since a €7.5m (Dh36.2m) transfer from Corinthians in September 2014. He could yet be made surplus to requirements at the new Al Duhail, following April’s merger between Jaish and QSL holders Lekhwiya.
Leonardo scored four goals in his first three games in the UAE, but his influence waned with just two more in his final 11 matches of 2016/17.
If Leonardo is allowed to exit, it will continue Jazira’s capricious behaviour with foreign buys. Brazil playmaker Thiago Neves and Chile forward Jefferson Farfan left after little more than a year last winter.
Jazira have chosen not to renew the expired deals of South Korea anchorman Park Jong-woo and Brazilian attacker Ailton Almeida.