Few things capture the imagination quite like a fairytale championship, and Sharjah’s historic Arabian Gulf League title last season falls perfectly into that category.
Like Leicester City in 2015/16, very few, if any, gave them a chance of success before the season started, but momentum is a wonderful thing and once the title was a realistic proposition there was nothing that could stop them.
But sometimes, reaching the summit is the easy part. Staying there is the real challenge.
History is littered with examples of teams who reached the top, only to plummet straight back down the following year. Leicester went from champions to 12th, only 10 points above the relegation zone and a whopping 49 points from the top of the table the following year.
And that is the challenge that now faces Sharjah after last season’s historic and remarkable AGL title, their first since 1996. Having achieved what many thought was unachievable, they face a battle to remain at the top, having gone from the hunter to the hunted.
Leading the chasing pack are Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, last season’s runners-up, who looked to have found their mojo again after a turbulent 12-months following the merger of Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai Club into one super squad.
But looking to go one better than last season, they have made perhaps the savviest move of the transfer window with the signing of Al Wahda striker Leonardo.
The 27-year-old Brazilian has an impressive goalscoring record in the Gulf, with 10 goals in 19 matches for Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah, before finding the net 13 times for Wahda last season.
Meanwhile his nine goals in the AFC Champions League this year has him leading the Golden Boot standings in that competition despite the Clarets having already been knocked out.
Partnered up front with Ahmed Khalil, who back at Shabab Al Ahli last season showed why he should never have left, they are perhaps the league’s most potent strike force.
And with an attack-minded coach in Argentine Rodolfo Arruabarrena, arguably the most important signing the club has made in the last 12 months, goals are guaranteed at Rashid Stadium.
As for Sharjah, while the loss of leading scorer Welliton would ordinarily be seen as a hammer blow, in Cape Verde international Ricardo Gomes the King have a more than capable replacement, especially if his perfect hat-trick against Ajman in the Arabian Gulf Cup last week is anything to go by.
They also possess Igor Coronado, the man who really made them tick last season. The Brazilian scored 17 AGL goals and was their creative mastermind.
With Gomes’ national team colleague Ryan Mendes already at the club he should have few problems settling in to Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s side. The 41-year-old Emirati proved a revelation last season, remarkably becoming the first Emirati coach to win the AGL, and if he can again have the King at the pointy end of the table his star will only rise further. And another crown could be earned.
With so many questions to be answered, the Arabian Gulf Super Cup this weekend provides the perfect entree to the season. Should Shabab Al Ahli prevail, with a lethal strike force and one of the league’s best coaches, they’ll rightly be seen as the team to beat this season.
Should Sharjah lift another piece of silverware, however, the underdogs will believe last year’s success wasn’t just a one off and know they can again challenge the traditional big boys of Emirati football.
Al Wahda rounded out their foreign quartet on Monday night with the long-predicted signing of €3 million-rated Legia Warsaw forward Carlitos.
Carlitos, 29, had been pursued by the Clarets in June as rumblings went on about the future of unsettled 2019 AFC Champions League top scorer Leonardo. Last month’s mutual parting with the Brazilian – who would controversially join Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club – then led to intense talks with Red Star Belgrade’s Comoros attacker El Fardou Mohamed Ben Nabouhane.
The last-minute collapse of those negotiations allowed interest in the 2017/18 Ekstraklasa Player of the Season to be revisited. Medical examinations were completed after the Spaniard landed in Abu Dhabi on Saturday and he will be presented to media on Tuesday at 13:00.
Wahda previously converted Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Milesi’s loan from Al Dhafra into a permanent deal, until 2021. Exits have included mothballed Moroccan winger Mourad Batna to Al Jazira, while the Emirati trio of centre-back Salem Sultan, centre midfielder Mohammed Abdulbasit and winger Tareq Ahmed have all joined Arabian Gulf League champions Sharjah.
Wahda hope this business will enable them to improve on last term’s third-placed finish. That was secured under veteran coach Henk ten Cate, whose post-season retirement led to the hiring of VVV-Venlo’s Maurice Steijn.
Carlitos will provide the Dutchman with a versatile attacking option, capable of playing behind the striker or as a No9. He departs Legia with a record of 21 goals from 53 matches across all competitions.
A prolific first season in Poland had witnessed the Alicante-born player become the 2017/18’s top flight’s leading marksman with 24 strikes in 36 run-outs for Wisla Krakow.
Wahda represent the 11th club of a nomadic senior career. Previous employers have included Villarreal B and Fuenlabrada in Spain’s lower leagues, plus Cypriot Second Division’s Aris Limassol and now subsumed Russian outfit FC Petrotrest.
Fujairah are likely to represent debut opposition for Carlitos in his new colours on September 20 when the 2019/20 AGL kicks off.
The development of a successful understanding with veteran Argentine striker Sebastian Tagliabue should be determinant to the team’s hopes of success.
The real work begins for Bert van Marwijk on Tuesday (16:45 KO) when his UAE side play their opening World Cup 2022 qualifier in Malaysia.
A heaving, 87,411-capacity Bukit Jalil National Stadium will provide a daunting stage to launch the Whites’ bid for just a second-ever entry. A pair of victories under Mahdi Ali were registered against the hosts during 2018’s second round, but last year’s final loss in the AFF Suzuki Cup to Vietnam and Johor Darul Ta’zim’s debut in the 2019 AFC Champions League points to much-sterner opposition this time around.
Beaten World Cup 2010 finalist Van Marwijk, 67, oversaw heavy warm-up wins against minnows Dominican Republic (4-0) and Sri Lanka (5-1) last week. His first games in charge also allowed pivotal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman to end a 10-month injury absence.
The potential role of the celebrated 2016 AFC Player of the Year is just one of several pre-match talking points:
BERT’S BIG CALLS
An Oranje-coloured revolution is under way in the Emirati ranks.
Specifics of how this succession plan will be represented versus the Malayan Tigers, however, remain tantalisingly unclear.
The bold Van Marwijk has torn down the Golden Generation’s faded visage since July’s first get-together in Austria and produced a belated injection of youth.
This drive to enact change has caused nine players aged 23 or under to travel east within a 26-man squad. Necessary alterations after the ultimate World Cup 2018 failure under Edgardo Bauza and 2019 Asian Cup pain with the moribund Alberto Zaccheroni.
Precious little information seeped out of the Bahrain training camp. Matches there against the Dominicans and Sri Lanka provided a private test bed for different tactics, plus personnel.
Will ascendant Al Wasl winger Ali Saleh, 19, be rewarded for a goal upon his first start against Sri Lanka? Can promising young defenders like Al Jazira’s Khalifa Al Hammadi and Mohammed Al Attas be thrown straight into the Bukit Jalil bear pit, or will wise heads such as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club veteran Walid Abbas remain in situ?
Van Marwijk is no stranger to transformation. He took over a rabble with Saudi Arabia during August 2015 and, acrimoniously, departed as a hero in September 2017 once a return to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 had been joyously secured.
A repeat of history is expected by his UAE Football Association paymasters.
Nascent calls made in Malaysia could decide the destinies of coach and country, specifically his use of Amoory…
The temptation to thrust one of Asia’s greats straight back into red-hot competitive action would be overwhelming for most coaches.
Van Marwijk’s CV, however, evidences he is not most coaches. Reason rather than passion will dominate discussions about Amoory’s role with a coaching staff that contains long-term No2 Roel Coumans and ex-Real Madrid player John Metgod.
After 315 days, one missed Asian Cup and an acrimonious departure for Al Jazira from Al Hilal, the 27-year-old returned as a second-half substitute against the Lankans. His suspect knee held up then and throughout training since, plus he was presented to the media at Monday’s pre-match press conference.
Can such a sustained period of inactivity be tolerated? Intriguingly, a reliance upon Amoory is not so intrinsic these days.
New Jazira team-mate Khalfan Mubarak oozes creativity, although a mixed Asian Cup in Zaccheroni’s constricted system is inarguable.
Conversely, if prosaic team shape is key to success in Malaysia, the likes of resurgent Al Nasr midfielder Habib Fardan or Al Wahda’s Khalil Ibrahim may relegate their heralded team-mate to an impact substitutes’ role.
TAMING THE MALAYAN TIGERS
Memories of contrasting results, both new and old, will inspire Tuesday’s hosts.
A shameful night for Malaysian football during September 2015 saw the Whites inflict a 10-0 away loss upon them at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Abdulrahman, at the heights of his creative powers, laid on six assists to ensure a heaviest-ever defeat.
November 2015’s return match at Selangor’s Shah Alam Stadium included a curled shot of outstanding quality from the same man. This would, eventually, ensure a 2-1 victory.
Tangible – and rapid – progress in the interim has included the emergence of a big-spending south-east Asian club giant in Johor, plus an enlivening run to the regional AFF showpiece.
Forward Syafiq Ahmad has emerged as a reliable source of goals, while tireless defender Matthew Davies is one of several call-ups mined from the Malay diaspora during recent years.
Vital momentum was continued amid Thursday’s epic 3-2 comeback win at great rivals Indonesia at Jakarta’s febrile Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. A 97th-minute winner from substitute Mohamadou Sumareh on enemy soil sparked mass disorder.
21,000 Tiket Telah Terjual— FA Malaysia (@FAM_Malaysia) September 9, 2019
Beli lebih mudah & murah secara online di https://t.co/yPVcBAL5ko sehingga 11.59 malam ini.
Tiket juga boleh dibeli di kaunter tiket stadium mulai 2.00 petang esok di Pintu A, B, C & D (Malaysia) & Pintu E (UAE).#FAM #HarimauMalaya #AsianQualifiers pic.twitter.com/NJVjdpmBlz
Early points on the board in Group G – and ones adorned with meaning.
AFF conquerors Vietnam and regional heavyweights Thailand are also contained in a uniquely homogenous section, minus the Middle East’s UAE.
Such strength means that only top spot may be enough to earn progression to the third round.
Malaysia will feel, justifiably so judged by current results, that they are no longer also-rans.
Now comes the time to prove it against successive Asian Cup semi-finalists and the country that caused a national embarrassment.