Superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman’s grand return for the UAE is set to take place in unlikely surroundings on Thursday when troubled preparations for January 2019’s Asian Cup continue with a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago (20:00 UAE) at Catalonia’s Estadi Palamos Costa Brava.
Here are the talking points from the first part of a double header that concludes with Tuesday’s meeting with lowly Laos.
AMOORY’S RESCUE MISSION
The time for reintroductions has arrived.
Amoory, 26, finally departed UAE borders this summer. But after years of speculation about a ground-breaking switch to Europe, he now dons the proud blue of Saudi Arabia behemoths Al Hilal.
The ex-Al Ain idol has not played for the Whites since January because of misdemeanours – along with fellow returnee Ali Mabkhout of Al Jazira – at that month’s Gulf Cup, subsequent absence for March’s King’s Cup and complications caused by a wrought exit that ensured he missed August’s Austria training camp. That concluded with a depressing goalless draw against minnows Andorra.
Abdulrahman has shown flashes of genius in two competitive – and goalless – starts for Hilal.
The 2016 AFC Player of the Year’s spark is desperately required by struggling Whites coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
الأبيض يستعد لمواجهته الدولية الودية أمام منتخب ترينداد وتوباغو الخميس ضمن معسكره الحالي المقام في مدينة جيرونا الإسبانية استعدادا لنهائيات كأس آسيا الإمارات 2019 ..#منتخب_الإمارات pic.twitter.com/D5RKU14TXq— UAE NT (@uaent2019) September 4, 2018
TRINIDAD’S ROUGH TRIP
A sojourn in Spain has brought nothing but misery for towering Soca Warriors boss Dennis Lawrence.
The ex-Everton first-team development coach’s squad arrived on Monday and hadn’t trained by Wednesday morning.
“I believe it’s the representative of the match agent, those are the ones that got everything wrong in terms of no bus turning up for our training sessions and no pitches arranged,” an infuriated Lawrence stated.
Time together was precious for undercooked Trinidad. April’s 1-0 friendly defeat against World Cup 2018 qualifiers Panama was the last time they played.
ZACCH MUST ATTACK
The Asian Cup currently elicits a sense of dread for the host nation.
Since Zaccheroni’s October 2017 appointment, the Whites have scored just four goals in 12 matches. This dull dozen includes four wins, four draws and four defeats.
Optimism about a repeat of 2015’s remarkable run to third in the previous continental tournament is at a low ebb.
Trinidad, placed 14 spots below the 77th-ranked UAE by FIFA after a period of inactivity, and Laos, currently ranked 178th, should provide both contrasting styles and easy prey for a team in need of rejuvenation.
For starters, Zaccheroni’s trademark 3-4-1-2 formation should gain vigour thanks to Abdulrahman and stellar striker Mabkhout’s reintegration. Midfielder Amer Abdulrahman, meanwhile, must build on a strong start to 2018/19 for Al Ain, which contrasts his insipid role in the Andorra debacle.
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.