Top-flight champions Sharjah are determined to show surprise success has not gone to their heads when 2019/20 kicks off in earnest with Saturday’s gala Arabian Gulf Super Cup clash against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, according to live-wire playmaker Igor Coronado.
It is a shock that the Brazilian’s unfancied side are even involved in the traditional season opener, with last term’s deserved Arabian Gulf League title – their first in 23 years – the biggest upset recorded during a decade of professionalism in the UAE. They now face the form team of 2019 – coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena led his employers to twin triumphs in the President and Arabian Gulf Cups.
“It will be an exciting game and it is a game every club wants to play at the start of the season,” said 27-year-old Coronado, ahead of the showpiece at Al Nasr’s redeveloped Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. “This is because you won something.
“That is in the past, though. It will not be an easy game, we have a lot of respect for them.
“Nothing has changed for Sharjah. We’ve kept our mentality and have the same work-rate.
“We hope for the best.”
Shabab Al Ahli finished as AGL runners-up, six points behind the winners. Their season was turned around by October’s visionary call to dispense with Jose Luis Sierra and replace him with ex-Al Wasl tactician Arruabarrena.
This deficit could be directly attributed to Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s King doing the double over them in the league.
“This is a different match and the two teams want to win,” said Arruabarrena, whose President’s Cup triumph gained entry into the weekend game. “We will try not to think that we lost to Sharjah both times in the Arabian Gulf League.
“We need to concentrate more on winning the third time. Only the team that keeps total concentration will win tomorrow.
“The most important thing will be what happens inside the field, based on the experiences of the players. I am telling them to enjoy the match without pressure and the result will follow.”
A burning desire to close the gap has witnessed a busy summer at Shabab Al Ahli. Levski Sofia creator Davide Mariani, Deportivo La Coruna loanee Fede Cartabia and prolific Al Wahda forward Leonardo – the 2019 AFC Champions League’s leading marksman – represent headline additions.
Warm-ups in the AG Cup from a side depleted by the international break generated a draw at Al Ain, plus victories versus Al Jazira and Nasr.
Striker Welliton’s defection to Al Wasl and the €3 million purchase of Partizan Belgrade’s Ricardo Gomes defined Sharjah’s transfer window. They also landed a trio of Emiratis from Wahda in defender Salem Sultan, centre midfielder Mohammed Abdulbasit and winger Tareq Ahmed.
Gomes fired blanks in AG Cup defeats to Bani Yas and Wahda. He then put Ajman to the sword with an ominous ‘perfect’ hat-trick in last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing.
Coronado – who inked a lucrative contract extension to 2023 this week and was named the AGL’s Best Foreign Player in May – was expecting his new team-mate to remain on the goal trail.
He said: “We can already see Ricardo’s quality. A striker lives by scoring goals.
“Once he scored the hat-trick, it took a lot of weight off his bag. I know how much he wants to succeed.
“The group, the coach are all very happy for him. It was an important moment for him to get those goals before this game and the league starting.
“I am sure he is going to help us a lot.”
Sharjah will be aiming for a third Super Cup win in four appearances. For Ahli, from eight appearances across their various guises, victory would draw them level with Al Ain’s leading five.
Tickets for the AG Super Cup can be purchased at dubai.platinumlist.net.
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.