Local football returns a little sooner than usual this weekend as the Arabian Gulf League resumes, with the intense heat of the UAE summer matched equally by the warmth of the reception it will receive from football fans in the Emirates.
Ahead of Thursday’s big kick-off, here are some talking points going in to 2018/19:
CAN AL AIN COPE WITH THE LOSS OF AMOORY?
The story of the summer, the best player in the league, one of the finest Asia has ever produced, was sensationally wrenched from the bosom of Al Ain, where he had been for nearly half of his life.
Initially Omar Abdulrahman was said to be returning to boyhood club Al Hilal on a season-long loan, before it was announced he had refused to sign a new contract and was gone for good.
It seems the worst time for the Boss to lose their top employee – they appear to be approaching somewhere near their peak again after last year’s double. How can they possibly cope with the loss of such a generational talent?
If the Arabian Gulf Super Cup is anything to go by, they might be just fine. Wahda – runners-up last year – stormed into a 3-0 lead in Cairo before the Boss bounced back to draw 3-3 and take the game to penalties.
The Clarets eventually triumphed but with Amoory gone, the stage is set for Hussein El Shahat – a revelation after arriving in January – to provide Sweden’s World Cup striker Marcus Berg with the ammunition to fire more goals than the league-leading 25 he netted in his debut campaign.
REST OF THE PACK SHOULD PACK A PUNCH
Of course, the loss of such a superstar will have the rest of the top teams believing the title race is wide open – and it should be.
Wahda were contenders for three quarters of the season before fading badly following an epic 6-2 defeat to Al Ain – who scored four goals in the final 18 minutes – in March. They looked sensational in the first 45 minutes in the Super Cup final and have guaranteed goals in Argentine veteran Sebastian Tagliabue – last season’s Best Foreign Player.
Wasl, who were transformed in Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s maiden campaign in 2016/17, faded badly in his second. But they have retained Brazilian sensation Fabio De Lima and have an all Brazilian foreign legion now, while also drafting in talented UAE anchorman Khamis Esmail.
Al Nasr reinstalled Ivan Jovanovic as coach after the failed Cesare Prandelli experiment mid-season and he has recruited brilliantly this summer – France international Yohan Cabaye the most eye-catching, but Mohamed Al Akbari, Samuel Rosa and Habib Fardan are all exquisite additions. The Blue Wave should be crashing the title race.
We should also expect much more from Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, who struggled in their first season as a newly-merged entity and lost enigmatic coach Cosmin Olaroiu too. They should be a far more settled and stronger presence.
A RETURN TO NORMALITY
As ever, the bottom of the table should provide just as much drama as the title-contending top teams. And there is plenty to play for this season with the league returning to 14 teams, meaning there is more margin for error.
New boys Ittihad Kalba and the now Maradona-shorn Fujairah will be instantly pegged for the bottom two spots following their promotion from First Division League and their reputation as yo-yo clubs in recent years.
Kalba and the Wolves will certainly need to focus on keeping the wolves from the door, but will likely have perennial strugglers Emirates Club for company, as well as Dibba Al Fujairah and Ajman, who will surely struggle to emulate last season’s heroic eighth-placed finish.
Whatever happens at the bottom, it won’t be dull.
ROUND 1 FIXTURES:
14:55 Al Nasr v Ajman
15:00 Al Dhafra v Sharjah
17:30 Al Wasl v Dibba Al Fujairah
14:50 Emirates Club v Al Ain
14:50 Fujairah v Bani Yas
17:30 Shabab Al Ahli Dubai v Al Jazira
17:30 Al Wahda v Ittihad Kalba
What a season it is shaping up to be in the Arabian Gulf League if this frenetic Super Cup clash is any indication.
Al Wahda, last season’s Arabian Gulf Cup champions, toppled league and President’s Cup winners Al Ain, but only on a penalties after squandering a 3-0 lead.
Following the shock and bitter departure of Omar Abdulrahman to boyhood club Al Hilal this summer, the opening 45 minutes of action of the 2018/19 UAE season looked like the Boss’ death knell might have been sounded after last season’s league runners-up ruthlessly exposed the double winners.
As if pained by the way they meagrely fell off in pursuit of Zoran Mamic’s side in the AGL title race last season, Wahda’s blistering start against the Boss was simply breathtaking.
It was some statement from Laurentiu Reghecampf’s side, who wasted no time in making it, racing into a 2-0 lead inside eight minutes.
UAE defender Mohammed Ahmed got himself in a right mess as he tried to fool Sebastian Tagliabue with a backheel, but the veteran Argentine blocked his effort and then advanced into the box, feeding a sublime ball between the Al Ain defence for club legend Ismail Matar to calmly sidefoot home with four minutes gone.
More calamitous Cairo defending saw the Clarets double the lead three minutes later, although there was still plenty for Mourad Batna to do after he robbed Tsukasa Shiotani on the touchline.
The Moroccan attacker, who was excellent in his debut season last term, advanced and curled a sumptuous effort over Khalid Essa in the Al Ain goal, the ball crashing in off the underside of the crossbar.
The Boss looked totally bamboozled and fell 3-0 behind, only for the referee’s whistle to deny Batna a second.
The Al Ain goal was under constant attack and Essa brilliantly palmed away Mohamed Abdulbasit’s placed effort after more suicidal defending.
Abdulbasit was then involved as the AGL and President’s Cup champions were thrown a lifeline – the midfielder tugged Hussein El Shahat in the box and the referee pointed to the spot, though the Egyptian schemer’s tumble was a tad dramatic.
He was not punished though as Marcus Berg – who forced himself to the top of the AGL scoring charts last year with 25 goals plundered in 20 games, saw his spot kick stunningly tipped over by a brilliant Rashed Ali save.
And three minutes later, Wahda were 3-0 to the good following another fine counter-attacking move.
Matar chipped out to the right flank for the rampaging Batna. His first-time cross was almost perfect, right onto the head of Tagliabue who cleverly nodded past Essa who was moving the opposite way.
The second half though belonged to the Boss. They were instantly on the front foot and had clearly shaken off the rust that enveloped them in the opening 45 minutes.
One goal was pulled back just after the hour when El Shahat’s excellent through ball split the defence and found Berg, this time his finish was composed past Ali.
A second penalty provided a chance of redemption for the Swede 11 minutes later when one of the most experienced men on the field, one-time Lyon defender Hamdan Al Kamali, idiotically scythed down Caio after he latched onto a throw-in.
#الوحدة_بطل_كأس_سوبر_الخليج_العربي— Al Wahda FC الوحدة (@AlWahdaFCC) 25 August 2018
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But the responsibility was passed to veteran Ibrahim Diaky, and the 35-year-old confidently dispatched the spot kick past the desperate dive of Ali to make it 3-2.
The inevitable happened minutes later when a hopeful punt into the box wasn’t cleared properly by Mohamed Al Menhali whose header only fell to Caio. The Brazilian used the full-back to bend a beautiful shot into the far corner beyond Ali to bring the Boss back from the brink.
They were now the more likely winners and Diaky thundered the crossbar when he connected acrobatically with Caio’s dinked cross.
But no more goals were found so to penalties it went. Tagliabue saw his spot kick saved by Essa to give Mamic’s side the advantage, but Ali’s save from El Shahat and Caio’s wayward effort put the Clarets in command.
And after Al Kamali made amends, summer arrival Leonardo De Sousa stroked home to end a pulsating encounter. More of the same when the AGL season kicks off in a week’s time would be welcome.
The Egyptian magician has been a revelation since joining the Boss on loan from Misr Lel Makkasa in his homeland in January. The 26-year-old schemer was instrumental in helping the Garden City side claim the Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup double.
The winger scored seven goals in just 11 AGL appearances and provided nine assists – second only to clubmate and Sweden striker Marcus Berg’s 10 – as the Boss stormed to the title for the first time in three years and a first President’s Cup crown in four.
Al Ain’s move to make El Shahat’s switch a permanent one was a no brainer and he will now be one of the main men tasked with filling the void left by UAE icon Omar Abdulrahman who left Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on a free transfer this month, returning to boyhood club Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia after refusing to sign a new contract with the AGL champions.
Al Ain meet Arabian Gulf Cup winners and AGL runners-up Al Wahda at the 30 June Stadium this weekend, and El Shahat is delighted to be playing in front of his home fans.
“I said it before, I have never felt away from home in the UAE,” said the attacker.
“I am delighted with the decision to have the Super Cup played in my country; it is further proof that the relationship between the UAE and Egypt is strong. Every Emirati feels Egypt is their second home and we Egyptians feel at home in the UAE too.
“I expect massive support from the fans in Egypt, not just for me as an Egyptian player, but also for Al Ain. Our fans are always ready and behind us, inside and outside the country.”
Saturday marks the second time in the last three seasons that the UAE football season’s curtain-raising encounter will be played outside the Emirates.
The 2016 showpiece between Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club) and Al Jazira was also played in Cairo while last year’s match was due to be played there, only for fixture congestion to see Wahda’s 2-0 victory over Abu Dhabi rivals Jazira played at Bani Yas Stadium instead.
El Shahat says his side are fully prepared to face rivals Wahda, insisting that he and his teammates are focused on meeting expectations ahead of the new season, one that will surely be made more challenging in the wake of Amoory’s departure.
Despite this, El Shahat believes expectations will be ever higher.
“We start on Saturday against Al Wahda, and I pray to God that we can come away from Cairo with the trophy,” said the Egyptian international.
“I respect Al Wahda’s ambition and I realise they are one of the biggest teams in the country, and I also respect their huge fan base. But we are determined to win the Super Cup and start this season with an achievement that drives us forward to continue achieving our objectives.”
Laurentiu Reghecampf’s Clarets, meanwhile, stand between the Boss and silverware. And after pushing Zoran Mamic’s men for much of last season before ultimately falling away in the final months of the AGL campaign, they will be determined to hoist the Super Cup as they look to the loftier goal of winning the league title for the first time since 2009/10.
One man who will be equally as crucial to their ambitions as El Shahat is to Al Ain’s is veteran Argentine striker Sebastian Tagliabue – who was named the AGL’s Best Foreign Player for a second time last term.
The 33-year-old striker is heading into his sixth season with the Clarets and is relishing the challenge of taking on Wahda’s rivals in a fixture known locally as Al Clasico.
And Tagliabue is in defiant mood as he pointed to the Clarets’ record of winning each of their last four cup finals across all competitions – they are reigning Super Cup champions and also won the 2017 President’s Cup and 2015/16 AG Cup in addition to the 2017/18 trophy.
“The Super Cup is a new challenge for us,” said Tagliabue.
“We know it will be a different and difficult type of challenge for both teams, but we will do our best.
“I hope we can win the game in the 90 minutes and bring the title home for our fans. It will be an exciting game and I hope as many Al Wahda fans are present to support us. We are always used to having the fans behind us everywhere.”