Clubs both old and familiar will return to the Arabian Gulf League for 2019/20 after Khor Fakkan and Hatta locked out the promotion spots during First Division League’s enthralling final day.
A quartet of clubs – the aforementioned duo, plus Al Hamriyah and Al Urooba – were all in contention for promotion ahead of round 18.
Long-term leaders Khor did their bit by beating second-bottom Al Taawoun 3-0, goals being shared between Abdulqader Qambar, veteran Mohamed Malalla and Brazilian stalwart Rodrigo Silva. This result both clinched the title and confirmed the end of a decade-long absence – they were then called Al Khaleej – from the top flight.
The race for second was far more complex. Hatta – relegated via 2017/18’s unique play-offs – earned an instant and dramatic return thanks to Brazilian attacking midfielder Gilmar 90th-minute clincher in the tense 1-0 victory at fourth-placed Hamriyah, thus allowing a superior head-to-head record against Urooba, who defeated Dibba Al Hisn 2-0, to come into play at the death.
Two from Dibba Al Fujairah, Fujairah and Emirates Club will be demoted from the AGL.
His side have a huge cup final looming in five days’ time, but Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena insists his focus and that of his players is on the Arabian Gulf League and relegation scrappers Emirates Club on Wednesday.
The Argentine leads his side into the final of the President’s Cup on Monday, where they face resurgent Al Dhafra. It will be a chance to fight for a maiden piece of silverware since the club were rebranded in the summer of 2017 following a merger between Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai CSC.
Some lean times have followed but former La Albiceleste international Arruabarrena has ushered in a period of prosperity since taking over from Jose Luis Sierra last October.
He has marched the club to third in the AGL table – they share the same amount of points as second-placed Al Jazira but trail only on goal difference – while former side Al Wasl were thrashed 5-1 in the semi-finals on the way to an appointment with the Western Knights at Zayed Sports City Stadium next week.
But it’s a case of first things first for Arruabarrena. “Talking about the final of the President’s Cup, it is not yet time,” said the 43-year-old, a winner of six Argentina caps between 1995-2006.
“We must focus in the current period on the next match, and we will leave the cup final for a time after the completion of the game before us in the league.”
Lowly Emirates sit third bottom and are yet again in the midst of a relegation dogfight. And Arruabarrena insists the Falcons will feel Wednesday’s encounter is their own cup final, and has warned his side not to expect an easy game.
“The team that performs better is the one who wins,” he added. “For the teams that seek to escape from the relegation area, I see that the games are harder, and they perform like a final match.
“They seek to improve their position, so I expect a strong competition between the two teams.”
Fellow finalists Dhafra are also in action on Wednesday night. The team in eighth face Al Nasr, a point and place below them, at Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Stadium.
For the past three years Al Jazira’s goalkeeping coach, Manuel Almunia has been passing on his expertise and knowledge he picked up during an impressive career playing at the very top in England.
The 41-year-old Spaniard has helped improve the goalkeeping performances at the club but believes this is down to the talent and determination of the players to improve every day.
Almunia knows exactly what is required to succeed as a goalkeeper having represented Arsenal and other clubs in Spain during his 19-year playing career. Now under his guidance, Ali Khaseif, Adel Abubakr and Abdulrahman Al Ameri have all shown remarkable progress in between the goalposts.
“When I arrived at Al Jazira, I found the goalkeeping quality much better than I expected,” said Almunia. “They are all very good goalkeepers with an excellent mentality, but more importantly they have improved a lot in terms of technique.”
For instance, Khaseif, who has made more than 200 appearances, has become an integral figure, leading by example as club captain. Even when he is injured or rested, Al Jazira have plenty of quality cover with Al Ameri and Abubakr showing great promise.
“Ali Khaseif is a big name player for club and country who is very experienced,” said Almunia. “More importantly he values the work that I am doing and encourages the other goalkeepers to do the things that would benefit them.
“That bodes well because Al Jazira have a great depth of talent in their squad. At just 20, Al Ameri can be a future number one goalkeeper of Al Jazira. Technically, he is very good and is physically powerful. His mentality has improved so much that he is now also starting to show leadership skills.”
He added: “I admire Abubakr’s work ethic because he always gives 100 per cent in every single training session. He appreciates the work that I do with him and has everything to be an excellent goalkeeper.”
For his goalkeepers to be at their sharpest, Almunia has a clear training programme in place that sees them work on drills on the pitch and in the gym.
“The first principle is that all goalkeepers must train with intensity,” he added. “Preparing them on what could happen during matches is key so they will do a lot of work on their legs and upper body, and speed and reaction exercises. They will then work on their crossing and handling skills inside the box. These are all exercises I consider important in developing the players.”
When Almunia retired in 2014, coaching was never on the horizon. But he is enjoying his role and is thankful to Al Jazira for giving him his first steps in professional coaching.
“I didn’t want to do anything to do with football after retiring,” he admitted. “After one year where I did nothing I asked myself ‘what shall I do in my life?’. I started to coach young kids as a favour back home in Spain. I then started to like coaching and now it’s something that I love. I don’t have any personal goals but just to see the Al Jazira goalkeepers happy. When they hug me, that is the best reward because it shows they are improving which benefits the whole team.”