Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai hosts the 12th edition of the Arabian Gulf Super Cup on Saturday, with the match pitting 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League champions Sharjah against President’s Cup winners Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.
The clash, which sees the winner lift the first silverware of the season, returns to the UAE having been played in Egypt last season.
The game kicks off at 8.30pm with Sharjah taking part in the Super Cup for the first time in their history after winning their first AGL title in 23 years. Coach Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s men won 17 of their 26 league fixtures last season, drawing eight and were a single match away from an invincible season, but lost to Al Wasl in matchweek 22.
No team has contested the Super Cup more than Shabab Al Ahli. The Dubai side – who also lifted the Arabian Gulf Cup last term – won on four of their five appearances in the competition, lifting the trophy in 2008/09, 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2016/17. They were beaten by Al Ain in the 2009/10 edition.
The two teams met 31 times in all competitions in the professional era. Shabab Al Ahli emerged victorious on 16 occasions, while Sharjah won five times and ten games ended in draws. Although Shabab Al Ahli historically hold the upper hand, Sharjah were the more successful of the two over the past couple of seasons, winning three of the teams’ last four encounters.
King defender Abdullah Ghanim believes his side are mentally prepared for Saturday’s Super Cup clash.
“My team-mates and I will be in top form, mentally and physically,” said Ghanim ahead of the Al Maktoum Stadium showdown. “It is a tough match against experienced opponents, so we have to work hard to win it.”
The 24-year-old discussed his team’s fortunes in their maiden Super Cup appearance, adding: “I believe the two teams have an equal chance going into the game, and we will have to show we are superior on the pitch.
“Our fans will be the key in this game. Seeing the stands full is a great motivation for us and that is what we expect at Al Maktoum Stadium so we can celebrate the title together.”
Shabab Al Ahli midfielder Abdullah Al Naqbi, meanwhile, stressed the importance of the encounter.
“Our ambition as players is to win, although it will be a difficult one,” said Al Naqbi.
“It is certainly not an easy game, but we will not disappoint our fans who have always stood behind us and drove us to achieve two titles last season.”
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.