Al Ain manager Ivan Leko has labelled rumours that he advised Al Ain against re-signing former star Omar Abdulrahman as “fake news”.
The former Boss poster boy left the Garden City for Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal last summer but the return to his boyhood club quickly soured after he suffered a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury against Al Shabab Riyadh just two months after signing.
The 27-year-old subsequently left Asia powerhouses Hilal earlier this week after failing to agree a new contract. He had been linked with a return to the UAE and Al Ain, as well as fellow Arabian Gulf League side Al Nasr – although the Blue Wave have distanced themselves from such reports.
And new Boss tactician Leko denied widespread rumours he told the club he did not want Abdulrahman back in the wake of their 3-0 win over Slovenian side Celje, their first pre-season game of the summer.
“I prefer not to deal with those who are purveyors of lies,” said the 13-times capped Croatia midfielder.
“I strongly refuse to use my name by those who promote fake news. It is unethical behaviour and makes institutions lose their credibility. Unfortunately, I cannot read Arabic articles at present.
“He (Abdulrahman) has quality and high skills but I have never made any press statements on his return to the club.
“Al Ain has its own official media channels accompanying the team everywhere to cover the team’s news transparently and with high credibility to all who are concerned about the news of this big team.”
Leko, who takes over from Juan Carlos Garrido in the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium dugout after arriving following two years in charge of Belgian top-flight giants Club Brugge, commended the performance of his players in their routine victory over Celje on Wednesday.
“The results of such games are not significant. However, such matches reflect the players’ seriousness and desire to achieve strong results, whether they are official or friendly matches or even training sessions,” he said.
“I believe the players were successful in implementing the plans they trained to put into practice.
“The international players joined their team-mates only 24 hours ahead of the match as you know. This is why we had six players of the reserve team in the team’s starting line-up. I am so happy for their high level of performance during the first 45 minutes.
“Indeed, one of the key reasons to hold such matches is to assess the performance of all the players who might be helpful to the team in the coming season which is so crucial to the team and the club as well in the future.”
Sebastian Tagliabue has achieved so much in a decorated spell with his beloved Al Wahda, but the veteran striker admits the lack of a league title in his six years with the club sometimes “doesn’t let me sleep”.
The Argentine is very much an anomaly in the transient environment of the UAE and Arabian Gulf League in-particular. He will head into his seventh season with the Clarets in 2019/20 – some players and coaches have left before completing seven games.
But the prolific marksman describes Wahda as “my second home in football” and he is desperate to lift an elusive AGL title – if only to silence iconic former club and UAE national team player Fahad Masoud, who is now in a management role at Al Nahyan Stadium.
“It is one thing left to achieve, the league title. Sometimes this doesn’t let me sleep,” the affable Tagliabue, known affectionately among Clarets fans as ‘Tigali’, told Sport360 on Wednesday evening after training.
“For example I was speaking to one person at the club yesterday, Fahad, and I asked him how many titles he has here at the club. He said four, but I have five. But then he told me ‘I have four leagues, so don’t speak’ so he totally kill me.
“Before I finish my career here, if I can take the league with Al Wahda, my career will be complete. If I take the league he cannot speak to me.”
Despite the AGL crown eluding both Tagliabue and the club – Wahda will head into the new season having not tasted league success in a decade – the 34-year-old has lifted a plethora of accolades in the UAE capital, both collective and individual.
He has hoisted the President’s Cup as well as two Arabian Gulf Cups and two UAE Super Cups – all in the last three seasons – while he has also twice finished top of the AGL scoring charts as well as being crowned AGL player of the year on as many occasions.
Arguably, his biggest individual feat arrived last term when he overtook iconic former Al Ain striker Asamoah Gyan as the top-scoring foreign player in league history since the AGL turned professional 10 years ago.
His prowess in front of goal almost led to a call-up to the UAE national team for January’s Asian Cup – then Al Wasl duo Caio and Fabio De Lima were also considered but red tape saw plans scuppered.
But that process, the high regard in which he is held at Al Nahyan and his family’s love of the UAE capital means Tagliabue continues to find happiness in Abu Dhabi.
“Wahda is my second home in football,” added the Buenos Aires native.
“My home is my club in Argentina (Club Atletico Colegiales) but outside of Argentina this is my home in football.
“I always say every year or when I have to renew every two or three years I always have the first words with Wahda. I will not speak with any club before I speak with Al Wahda because I feel very good here.
“Of course we have bad and good moments, sometimes I wanted to leave because not everything is perfect, and I know sometimes the club wanted to change me, because this is football. But when I look back and see ‘wow, seven years’, we are champions five times.
“We cannot take the league but this year, maybe, we will fight for that. I was two times top scorer and two times best foreign player, and now the best foreign scorer in the league, I almost played for the UAE national team. This seven years at this club has been really amazing for me.”
Promoted Khor Fakkan spelled out their intention to compete in the Arabian Gulf League on Wednesday night with a trio of impressive Brazilian deals.
A quick-fire series of announcements was headlined by the news prolific Al Qadsiah winger Bismark, 26, had agreed terms. The peroxide-haired attacker struck 10 times in 29 Saudi Professional League matches last term as he battled, in vain, against relegation.
He is joined at Saqr bin Mohammad al Qassimi Stadium by Boavista centre-back Robson, who impressed in 2018/19 when returning Bani Yas swept to sixth. Atletico Mineiro playmaker Dodo, 24, will also look to impress in the wake of a solid loan spell at Fortaleza that contained five goals in 53 league run-outs.
The east-coast outfit claimed the First Division League’s title last season, earning a top-flight berth for the first time since 2008/09 when they were known as Al Khaleej. Paulo Comelli has subsequently been drafted in, with the experienced ex-Emirates Club and Dibba Al Fujairah tactician leaning heavily on his compatriots in the transfer market.
Veteran Iraqi coach Abdulwhab Abdulqader made way for the 59-year-old.
Bismark and Robson are travelling to tie-up their moves, while Dodo’s has already gone through.
Towering Ukrainian centre forward Miro Slavov, 28, and well-travelled Brazilian playmaker Rodrigo Souza, 31, will not be retained in the four-player foreign quota. Both players played key roles in earning promotion.
Khor Fakkan have also been busy in the domestic market. Additions include Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club forward Rashed Hassan and Bani Yas midfielder Ahmed Saleh Haboush.