Arabian Gulf League restarts amid losing fight for relevancy and lack of imagination

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(Twitter/@Alhilal_FC).

After 52 days away, the Arabian Gulf League returns on Monday.

There will be no great fanfare when Dibba Al Fujairah and surprise-relegation-contenders Al Wasl kick-off the second half of the campaign.

This is not, simply, because of a hangover from the Asian Cup. A tournament that ended in great disappointment on the pitch for the hosts.

That excuse is too simple, too convenient.

Instead, four weeks of transfer-market inactivity and high-profile defections among the 14 participants has added to the sense of a competition floundering in the regional fight for relevancy.

That this downwards trend has continued at a time when the Saudi Professional League (SPL) has drafted in the likes of ex-Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco, plus long-term Jose Mourinho acolyte Rui Faria and Morocco centre-back Mehdi Benatia now call the Qatar Stars League home, only adds to the sense of futility.

The desire to break even and establish fiscal responsibility in the AGL is admirable. This drive for austerity, however, appears to have chronically curbed not just ambitions, but also imaginations.

A downwards trend was established in the summer when 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, finally, bid farewell for the rapaciously ambitious SPL. Plus, only Al Nasr showed any kind of intent with the recruitment of former France midfielder Yohan Cabaye and ex-Spain striker Alvaro Negredo.

The winter market was even worse.

Club World Cup hero Zoran Mamic followed in Amoory’s footsteps by swapping AGL champions Al Ain for Al Hilal.

The Boss also sold emerging Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat to Al Ahly and saw last month’s Silver Ball winner Caio agree a free transfer to Benfica this summer. There was also the inexplicable decision from Nasr to cut Cabaye loose after only six months.

Nondescript Portuguese playmaker Ruben Ribeiro is in at Al Ain. Brazilian also-rans Samuel Rosa (Nasr to Fujairah) and Ronaldo Mendes (Fujairah to Wasl, loan cancellation) were also on the move.

In other deals, Emirates Club, as per usual, raided the outer reaches. Nasr have welcomed back Lebanon centre-back Joan Oumari and allowed new coach Benat San Jose to be reunited with Chilean forward Ronnie Fernandez.

All at a time when Giovinco, prolific Spanish striker Jonathan Soriano, Australia centre-back Milos Degenek, €10 million Romania winger Nicolae Stanciu, Faria and Benatia have begun to call the region home.

There were no such blockbusters in the AGL. But this can be excused.

What can’t is a lack of invention and creativity.

To Al Ain’s credit, strong rumours state they’ve beaten Juventus, among others, to a summer deal for rising 18-year-old Iraq forward Mohanad Ali. Dibba Al Fujairah also landed Jordan forward Yousef Al Rawashdeh for their remaining 2018/19 commitments.

These are exactly the kind of deal financially constricted clubs should be making.

Ali was a breakout star at the Asian Cup. Al Rawashdeh got two assists in three tournament run-outs.

Both impressed, both are affordably priced.

India centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, Bahrain defender Hamad Al Shamsan, Thailand midfielder Thitipan Puangchan – since hoovered up by J1 League – and Oman forward Muhsen Al Ghassani would have fitted this criteria.

Instead, an uninspired selection of journeymen pad out a depleted field in a jaded competition.

Not even witnessing if Sharjah’s surprise title bid comes to fruition, or how legendary coach Henk ten Cate fares at Al Wahda, can deflect from this unfortunate conclusion.

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