A rejuvenated field will begin attempts to dethrone shock champions Sharjah when the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League kicks off this weekend.
The King became the standout story from a decade of professionalism when they came from nowhere and stormed to a first top-flight title in 23 years. Now, comes the response.
None have been bolder than 2016/17 holders Al Jazira’s. Their returning of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman to the country after an unfulfilled year at Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal evidences unbridled ambition, while the likes of Al Ain and Al Wahda plan to be right in the chase this time.
Talent, however, can be found throughout a division that appears to have emphatically rebounded. There is also the wildcard provided by an injection of foreign youths facilitated by loopholes around new residency rules.
COME AT THE KING…
Anyone who contends they predicted a Sharjah title success at this point last year is either a liar, or rivals Nostradamus for prescience.
Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s men blew a necessary breeze of fresh air through a staid competition.
That they then last week proceeded to defeat 2019’s form side, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, on penalties with 10 men for 60 minutes of the Arabian Gulf Super Cup speaks volumes of their indefatigable spirit. It is six seasons since a club retained the title, but Sharjah will take some shifting.
Runners-up Shabab Al Ahli wrestled 2019 AFC Champions League top scorer Leonardo from third-placed Al Wahda, who have fresh direction from VVV-Venlo coach Maurice Steijn and emergent super-talent Yahya Al Ghassani.
Al Ain, the UAE’s most-decorated outfit, are now led by Belgium champion Ivan Leko and splashed €5.3 million on Al Wasl striker Caio Canedo. Then, there is Jazira…
The soap opera that engulfed Amoory was ended in eye-catching fashion last month.
Volatile talks about an extension at Hilal, ultimately, imploded. Claims and counter-claims about financial demands and the state of the knee seriously injured in October provide a cloud of uncertainty.
Have the Pride of Abu Dhabi added a living legend – eternally joined to nemesis Al Ain, for added schadenfreude – to a squad that contains prolific UAE striker Ali Mabkhout and incisive Pyramids FC loanee Keno? Or is he spent?
This situation should be 2019/20’s defining storyline.
ON THE REBOUND
A sense that the AGL had been left behind was palpable in summer 2018.
This is, distinctly, not the case now.
Sublime UAE prospects such as the aforementioned Al Ghassani, Al Jazira defender Khalifa Al Hammadi and Al Wahda No1 Mohamed Al Shamsi are the envy of Asia. Wahda striker Abdulla Anwar, 20, has five goals in three 2019/20 Arabian Gulf Cup clashes.
Al Ain’s Andrea Radovanovic, Shabab Al Ahli’s Ahmed Jashak and other non-unknown foreign Under-21s may also turn into familiar names.
Adroit foreign additions across the AGL include Sharjah predator Ricardo Gomes, Al Nasr’s Chile midfielder Esteban Pavez, Ittihad Kalba’s ex-Barcelona centre-back Henrique, promoted Khor Fakkan’s pocket-rocket Bismark and Bani Yas’ South Africa conductor Ayanda Patosi.
These complement existing stars like Nasr’s ex-Spain striker Alvaro Negredo and Kalba’s flying Hungary winger Balazs Dzsudzsak.
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