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.
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