It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions after one round of fixtures, but there was enough evidence to suggest on opening weekend that the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League title race could be a keenly contested one.
Al Wahda – last season’s runners-up – plundered six goals in a 6-2 thrashing of newly promoted Ittihad Kalba. They look impressive in attack and have already secured the Arabian Gulf Super Cup – they stormed into a 3-0 lead against AGL champions and President’s Cup winners Al Ain in Cairo last week before eventually capitulating and allowing the Boss back in it, although they did still win on penalties.
Al Wasl easily dispatched Dibba Al Fujairah 3-0 with Fabio De Lima and summer signing Vinicius Lima, a fellow Brazilian, both on target.
Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and Al Jazira shared nine goals in a scintillating 5-4 triumph for the Pride of Abu Dhabi.
It was an encounter full of attacking zest that suggested both sides could be on the road to recovery after dismal 2017/18 campaigns.
Shabab Al Ahli seemed bogged down by off-field drama last year in what was a transitional campaign following the merger, while Jazira looked worn out by their FIFA Club World Cup exploits and a draining title-winning campaign a year earlier.
And then there is the Omar Abdulrahman-less Al Ain, who despite being shorn of their talisman, put on a show that suggested it will be business as usual, winning 3-1 at Emirates Club.
The one exception to the rule on opening day was Al Nasr – who after a stupendous summer of impressive business, slumped to a 1-0 home defeat against Ajman, last season’s surprise package.
It’s been a while since a genuine duel was fought out for the league championship – Wahda finishing seven points adrift of Al Ain last year was the narrowest gap between the champions and runners-up in eight years, since the Clarets last tasted title triumph, in 2009/10.
They went toe to toe with the Boss before a soul destroying 6-2 defeat at the beginning of March left their title challenge in tatters and saw them fall away. But they look fired up and in ferocious form in the early embers of this campaign.
After underperforming last term, we should expect Wasl’s brilliant Brazilian foreign legion to help the Cheetahs step up the pace, while Nasr are too talented – and have the shrewd and tactically astute Ivan Jovanovic guiding them – to let an opening day blip derail their bid to hoist a maiden league title in 33 years.
Shabab Al Ahli and Al Jazira’s defences will need to tighten up if they are to count themselves as serious contenders, but they both showed in their goal-laden encounter that they ooze brilliance and ballast in attack, they just need to bolt the back door shut.
And then there’s the Boss, who until someone pushes them off the top and says otherwise, remain in charge.
Strap yourselves in, 2018/19 could be epic.
The Arabian Gulf League is back and with some style too. A total of 31 goals were netted on the opening weekend, with huge wins for Sharjah and Al Wahda, while the game of the weekend was undoubtedly Al Jazira’s 5-4 victory at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai.
Elsewhere, Al Nasr – whose heavy summer recruitment has pegged them as one of the title challengers – were undone by Ajman, while new boys Fujairah and Bani Yas drew 1-1.
Here are our Picks of the Week from the opening weekend:
GOAL: MOHAMED BENYETTOU (FUJAIRAH)
The great Diego Maradona may be gone, but the Wolves are back in the big time and they proved on the opening day that they will not lack bite this season.
Algerian forward Benyettou scored their first goal back at the elite level and what an introduction, picking up a short corner and rifling a rocket of a shot into Fahad Al Dhanhani’s top left corner. Unstoppable.
PLAYER: KHALFAN MUBARAK (AL JAZIRA)
What a joy it is to see the young Emirati at the top of his game. Having claimed the AGL’s Best Young Player as Jazira swept to the title two seasons ago, Mubarak’s form nosedived in 2017/18. Now aged 23, it’s time for him to come into his own.
Perhaps the attacking midfielder was keenly aware of the need to step his game up as he was at his blistering best in a 5-4 thriller his side edged against Shabab Al Ahli.
And even though Ali Mabkhout’s hat-trick will hit headlines, it was his two assists and sublime free-kick winner that really stole the show.
COACH: AYMAN EL RAMADY (AJMAN)
A year ago, the Orange Brigade shone brightly on opening day with a narrow 2-1 defeat against champions Al Jazira – they deserved at least a point.
A year on they got what they deserved and caused a sensational stir by beating title contenders Al Nasr 1-0 – at Maktoum Bin Rashid al Maktoum Stadium. So much for second season syndrome.
TALKING POINT: NO OMAR, NO PROBLEM
Al Ain began life without the talismanic Omar Abdulrahman quietly and without much trouble as Emirates Club were dispatched with minimum fuss in Ras Al Khaimah.
The prodigal son may be gone but the Boss have a more than able replacement in Hussein El Shahat, who scored the first and then supplied assists for Marcus Berg and Caio for the second and third goals.
Speaking of Berg, if he can get anywhere near his 25 goals from a year ago, with El Shahat and Brazilian winger Caio in support, the Garden City side should continue to flourish.
Egypt schemer Hussein EL Shahat got the ball rolling in just the second minute for Zoran Mamic’s side, Caio’s free-kick found Marcus Berg inside the box and when his shot was deflected, El Shahat’s low strike crept past goalkeeper Ahmad Al Shaji to put the away side in front.
The Falcons leveled in the 18th minute, as Bakary Kone’s accurate long through ball found Bernie Ibini Isei in space, who unleashed a powerful low shot from the edge of the box to beat Khalid Essa.
Al Ain responded quickly, with El Shahat turning from scorer to creator as he crossed for Berg, whose excellent header restored the Boss’ lead.
Berg won a penalty in the 37th minute after VAR was consulted, but after he scored the rebound following Al Shaji’s brilliant save, the spot kick was ordered to be retaken after the Swede caught the keeper accidentally with a boot. Al Shaji stood tall though and saved brilliantly again.
The hosts missed two glorious chances to equalise after the break as they twice hit the post, and less than a minute later the Boss claimed the points when Caio calmly converted El Shahat’s pass past Al Shaji.
Al Wahda got their campaign off to a fine start as they smashed promoted Ittihad Kalba 6-2 at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
It took the newly crowned Arabian Gulf Super Cup champions just nine minutes to kick-start their season, Tariq Ahmed opening the scoring.
Against the run of play, Kalba’s Yaqoub Al Baloushi bundled the ball home in the 15th minute to level.
South Korea defender Rim Chang-woo restored the hosts’ lead with a rifled a shot into the bottom corner just before the break.
Hamdan Al Kamali tapped in to make it 3-2 shortly after, but Kalba fought back again through Yaqoub Al Baloushi’s header.
Sultan Al Ghaferi’s second yellow card and subsequent red gave the new boys further hope in the 67th minute, but rather than hamper the hosts, they killed the game off with three late goals.
An own goal from Hamad Al Hammadi made it 4-2 before summer signing Yahya Al Ghassani and veteran marksman Sebastian Tagliabue gave the Clarets an emphatic victory.
In the other match from Friday, 10-man Bani Yas earned a 1-1 draw at Fujairah.
Both sides were promoted from the First Division League and the Wolves were given a huge advantage when Faisal Al Antali was sent off for a challenge on Humaid Ahmed in just the 17th minute.
Just three minutes later, Mohamed Benyettou’s curled strike gave his side the lead.
Pedro Conde earned a point for the visitors just after the hour mark, the Spaniard’s first touch put him through on goal before he found the bottom corner.