The Arabian Gulf League makes a welcome return following a frustratingly long break this week, with plenty at stake including a thrilling title battle set to resume.
Just three points separated the top three at the start of play on Monday as teams looks to shake off the cobwebs caused by the hosting of both the FIFA Club World Cup and Asian Cup in the Emirates in recent months.
Here are some talking points.
HOW DO BOSS MANAGE MAMIC MISERY?
Interesting times ahead for Al Ain. What can we expect of the Boss following the departure of boss Zoran Mamic to Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal?
Not only has the Croatian sought pastures new following the end of a two-year deal with the Garden City outfit, but two of the club’s stars have uprooted too. Egypt schemer Hussein El Shahat has been bizarrely sold to Al Ahly in his homeland while brilliant Brazilian winger Caio agreed to terms with Portugal powerhouses Benfica in the summer.
In the midst of a tantalising title tussle with Sharjah and Al Jazira prior to the Club World Cup and then Asian Cup taking precedence in mid-December, it will be intriguing to see how the trio manage the future after a lengthy hiatus.
But whereas Sharjah and Jazira are reconvening with their staff and players largely intact, there has been a total revamp at Al Ain and a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Former Borussia Monchengladbach defender Zeljko Sopic and Ahmed Abdullah have assumed the reins from Mamic. Can they maintain a title charge?
JITTERS AT JAZIRA
At first glance, Jazira’s slip-up against Shabab Al Ahli on Monday provides a glorious opportunity for leaders Sharjah and champions Al Ain to pick up points and open up some daylight in the title race.
Victory for the King – the only undefeated side in the AGL this season – against Al Dhafra would open up a six-point gap to the Pride of Abu Dhabi, while the Boss would put three points between themselves and the league’s leading scorers with victory at home to Emirates Club.
But with the heavy distractions of the two aforementioned tournaments decimating the fixture list for the last two months, it is anyone’s guess as to how chaotic both sides’ preparations for the resumption of the league have been.
The Boss’ plight is of course hampered further by the galling loss of Mamic.
It is not quite the pandemonium of pre-season when players’ fitness levels plummeted. A lot of them featured at the Asian Cup while others have been ticking over at their clubs; they should just require fine-tuning.
But of course they will need to refocus. We are only halfway through the season. There remains a lot of football to be played.
CAN HENK HELP WAKE WAHDA FROM SLUMBER?
Sleeping giants Al Wahda seemed certain to mount a serious claim for a maiden league title in nine seasons at the beginning of 2018/19.
But after the Boss were beaten to the Arabian Gulf Super Cup title in Cairo in August and the campaign opened with a scintillating 6-2 destruction of Ittihad Kalba, it’s been quite the fall from grace for the Clarets.
They won their next two by a combined scoreline of 8-2 but then the wheels started to fall off for Laurentiu Reghecampf. Of their last nine league games, victory was savoured just twice as they spiraled away from the top of the table to currently sit sixth.
Romanian Reghecampf was jettisoned following a 2-1 defeat to Jazira on November 23, which ironically has since led to the return of former Pride of Abu Dhabi coach Henk ten Cate to the capital.
When the Dutchman arrived in Abu Dhabi in December 2015 he set about a revolution at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium that led to 2016/17’s title triumph. He began brightly enough with Emirates put to the sword in a 5-0 Arabian Gulf Cup thrashing at the end of December.
But Wahda are a mammoth 13 points adrift of table-topping Sharjah as they head to Kalba. But with former Chelsea and Barcelona assistant Ten Cate now at the helm, and in charge of arguably the most talented squad in the league, expect a shake-up of epic proportions.
Head coach Damien Hertog is convinced his UAE national players will bounce back strongly from the Asian Cup and help maintain Al Jazira’s challenge when the Arabian Gulf League restarts this week.
After a month-long break, the club resume their campaign on Monday February 4 at home to Shabab Al Ahli where they will be aiming to build on their impressive start. Al Jazira currently sit joint-second with eight wins in 13 matches.
On Saturday, Hertog was reunited with Ali Mabkhout, Khalifa Al Hammadi, Khalfan Mubarak, Fares Juma and Ali Khaseif after they joined training following UAE’s run to the semi-finals.
Ahead of Monday’s home clash, Hertog revealed he would have no issue selecting any of those players after praising their mentality.
“We had five players from the club and not all of them were involved in all the games,” said Hertog during the pre-match press conference. “They are mentally strong and I have no doubt they will be ready when they meet up with the team. The whole team is looking forward to welcoming them back so that they can play on Monday.”
Al Jazira will be without the services of midfielder Sebastien Siani and defenders Khalifa Al Hammadi and Salim Al Eidi through suspension. Defender Mohamed Al Attas and midfielders Mohammed Jamal and Salim Abdullah are also ruled out with injury.
However, Hertog has been impressed with the work ethic in training and is confident his players can be competitive against a Shabab Al Ahli, who are three points behind Al Jazira.
“We did a lot of work in training and evaluated the first half of the season and see where we could make progress,” added the Dutchman. “I am satisfied with how the team worked and how they have improved in the last couple of weeks.”
He added: “Against Shabab Al Ahli, it is important to get the three points. I expect both teams to play to win just like how we played earlier against them in the season in the league (Al Jazira won 5-4). We have had a good first half of the season and so have they, which tells you everything about the strength of Shabab Al Ahli.”
One of the players to have played a key role for Al Jazira is Leonardo. The Brazilian attacker has scored five goals in the league this season and the 32-year-old is keen to add to his tally on Monday.
“I hope to continue playing well,” said Leonardo. “I work very hard every day to be fit and want to help my team be competitive as always. I hope we can play well in the second half of the season.
“Shabab Al Ahli will be a difficult team as they have had a good season so far. We are playing at home so I hope the fans can come and support us and hopefully we can get the three points.”
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.
It is a great honour to be part of #Alhilal and I am very proud to be here. We have a great squad, amazing fans and I am sure that all of us together, with the support of the people in charge of the club, can make history! pic.twitter.com/8TO6oApayj— Zoran Mamić (@ZoranM_official) February 2, 2019
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.