Round 1 of the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
There was a surprise hero for title-chasers Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club when they dispatched minnows Hatta, while a famous face enjoyed a vitalising start to management on the east coast when Fujairah down Al Wahda 1-0.
Here are Sport360°’s top picks and a talking point:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Yousif Jaber (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club)
Statistical anomalies defined an unforgettable 3-0 win for Jaber at promoted Hatta.
The versatile defender now has the record for most club appearances in UAE football since 2008/09’s dawn of professionalism. It is highly unlikely in any of the previous 274 that he got two assists and a goal.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Fawaz Awana (Bani Yas)
Awana exhibited the deftest of right-footed shots to get the scoring under way for the hosts in Thursday’s entertaining 2-2 draw with Ajman.
Awana, on loan to Al Wahda earlier this summer for Asian duty, was a picture of perfect technique when he drove onto a cut-back and curled into the far-left corner.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Madjid Bougherra (Fujairah)
What a start to the Algeria and Rangers legend’s senior managerial career in the league.
Hotly tipped Al Wahda were downed 1-0 thanks to a move in which an advancing left-back caused chaos.
There was also the exceptionally bold decision to hook midfielder Fernando Gabriel upon 55 minutes. Big calls – and a big opening result.
Changing face of UAE football
This term’s Under-21 registration loophole had a clear and telling impact.
A total of 15 non-Emirati kids started or came on. Only a handful met last season’s requirement of having a UAE-national mother.
Is this barefaced opportunism from the clubs that will severely hamper Emirati opportunities going forward, or will the UAE gain, hugely, in the long term through naturalisation? We shall see…
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.
The Arabian Gulf League returns this weekend for the 2019/20 season.
Champions Sharjah are the team everyone else will aim to topple between now and May.
To find out all you need to know about all 14 competitors, read our team-by-team guide below. If you are wondering which side to support, you’ll also find detailed reasons for each one:
Coach: Ivan Leko
2018/19 finish: 4th
Star player: Caio Canedo (r)
Major ins: Caio (Al Wasl), Mohamed Jamal (free, Al Jazira), Abderrahmane Meziane (free, USM Alger), Kodjo Fo Doh Laba (free, RS Berkane)
Major outs: Marcus Berg (free, Krasnodar), Caio (free, Benfica), Amer Abdulrahman (Al Jazira), Tongo Doumbia (Ajman)
Reason to support: The Boss’ dominance might be a reason to root against them normally, but they’re now something of an underdog. Whether they can rise to the challenge of their rivals will be fascinating to watch.
Prediction: Green shoots of recovery might well be witnessed in the Garden City, with the acquisition of prolific scorer and creator of AGL goals, Caio. Togo striker Laba could also blossom. A creaking backline, containing Ismail Ahmed (36) and Mohanad Salem (34), remains a concern though.
Coach: Ayman El Ramady
2018/19 finish: 7th
Star player: Vander Vieira (r)
Major ins: William Owusu (Royal Antwerp), Mohamed Ibrahim (Sharjah), Tongo Doumbia (Al Ain), Godwin Mensha (Esteghlal)
Major outs: Mohammed Hilal (free, Al Wasl), Mohammed Ali Shakir (Al Ain), Adil Hermach (released)
Reason to support: Not the whipping boys they once were, the Orange Brigade have shone bright in their two seasons back in the big time and really lit up the league last season. A heady seventh place finish under capable coach in El Ramady means they could test, rather than be fodder for, the elite.
Prediction: After such an unexpectedly high finish, it will be hard to replicate that feat, especially with the teams above them expected to produce possibly the most exciting title race in years. The only way might be down.
Coach: Winfried Schafer
2018/19 finish: 6th
Star player: Pedro Conde (r)
Major ins: Joao Victor (Cruzeiro), Luiz Antonio (Al Shabab), Ayanda Patosi (Cape Town City), Sasa Ivkovic (Maribor)
Major outs: Yousef Jaber (free, Shabab Al Ahli), Michael Ortega (free, Omonia Nicosia), Haboosh Saleh (free, Al Wasl), Leroy George (released)
Reason to support: Out in the sticks of Abu Dhabi’s suburbs, with Jazira and Wahda taking up all the breathing space, little attention is paid to the Sky Blues. And yet, they were superb last season and worth trekking outside the city limits to see. Striker Pedro Conde is worth the admission price alone.
Prediction: Uncertain. After a terrific return in which they finished just five and six points off their big brothers from the capital, there have been a raft of incomings and departures. Bundesliga and AFCON-winning boss Schafer though should provide structure.
Coach: Vuk Rasovic
2018/19 finish: 10th
Star player: Khaled Bawazir (r)
Major ins: Joao Pedro (free, Al Fateh), Mikhail Rosheuvel (free, NAC Breda), Diego Jardel (free, Al Arabi), Rashed Muhayer (Al Ain), Issam El Adoua (Al Kuwait Sports Club)
Major outs: Nicolas Milesi (Al Wahda), Diego (Deportivo Toluca)
Reason to support: Stuck way out in the Western Region, Dhafra need all the support they can get. In all seriousness, after ushering in stability last season following a relegation flirt, Rasovic’s signings hint at a more attack-minded assault on the AGL. Jardel and Pedro are already among the goals in the Arabian Gulf Cup.
Prediction: The Western Knights finished as far off relegation as they did from the top six. Much improved, possibilities appear vast. Perhaps progress in form of higher points and position should be the simple goal, though.
Coach: Madjid Bougherra
2018/19 finish: 12th
Star player: Fernando Gabriel
Major ins: Alassane Meite (free, Leicester), William Jebor (free, Wydad Casablanca), Abdalla Saleh (free, Al Wasl), Jhonnattann (Al Taawoun)
Major outs: Mohamed Benyettou (Al Wakrah), Hassan Ameen (free, Khor Fakkan), Danjuma Kuti (free, Minerva Punjab), Mohamed Khalfan (Sharjah)
Reason to support: It seems to be the season for the return of club icons, with Man United and Chelsea legends Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard now in charge of the clubs at which they made their names. Effervescent ex-Rangers defender Bougherra spent two seasons as a player at Fujairah, which will provide fans with a fillip.
Prediction: The Wolves initially feasted upon their AGL return – winning three and drawing two of their opening seven games. They won just two of their next 19 though, six points arriving in their final three games, to finish three above relegated Emirates Club. They have a scrap on their hands.
Coach: Christos Kontis
2018/19 finish: 2nd, First Division League
Star player: Cristian Lopez
Major ins: Daniel Amora (Al Raed), Abdulla Kazim (loan, Al Wasl), Cristian Lopez (Amiens), Cleylton (Belenenses SAD), Waleed Sirag (Ittihad Kalba), Yousif Saeed (loan, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club)
Major outs: Gilmar, Luan (both Al Hamriyah)
Reason to support: Take a road trip to the Hajar Mountains and experience one of football’s most-picturesque grounds. The backdrop to the action is utterly breath-taking, plus provides a welcome break from the slog of city life in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Watching how rookie coach Kontis gets on provides value, as well.
Prediction: Hatta are destined for a season-long slog against an instant return to the second division. Ignore the 4-3 loss to second-string Al Wasl in the Arabian Gulf Cup; goals should be a problem all season long. The likes of Cleylton and Amora need to provide a solid platform the club can build upon.
Coach: Fabio Viviani
2018/19 finish: 11th
Star player: Balazs Dzsudzsak
Major ins: Henrique (Corinthians), Peniel Mlapa (Dynamo Dresden), Waleed Ambar (loan, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club), Yaseen Al Bakhit (Dibba Al Fujairah), Yaqoub Yousef (Al Jazira), Saeed Musabbeh (Al Ain)
Major outs: Tommy Tobar (Emirates Club), Waleed Sirag (Hatta), Giovanni Sio (end of loan, Montpellier)
Reason to support: If you are a fan of traditional wing play, then Kalba are the club for you. Hungary flyer Dzsudzsak is often worth the price of admission alone. This dynamism has only been added to by the superb Jordan international Al Bakhit.
Prediction: Kalba have been smart shoppers. Centre forward Mlapa should represent a significant upgrade on the departed Tobar, while Emirati additions Yousef and Musabbeh provide valuable experience. The only concern is coach Viviani – he’s overseen an ongoing 13-match AGL winless streak. Kalba should have too much to go down.
Coach: Jurgen Streppel
2018/19 finish: 5th
Star player: Ali Mabkhout
Major ins: Milos Kosanovic (Standard Liege), Sultan Al Ghaferi, Mourad Batna (both free, Al Wahda), Omar Abdulrahman (free, Al Hilal), Keno (loan, Pyramids FC), Amer Abdulrahman (Al Ain)
Major outs: Ernest Asante (Al Hazem), Yaqoub Yousef (free, Ittihad Kalba), Leonardo (free, Tianjin Tianhai), Mohamed Jamal (free, Al Ain), Eissa Al Otaiba (free, Bani Yas), Sultan Al Shamsi, Shahin Surour (both Bani Yas)
Reason to support: Two words: Omar Abdulrahman. Add in another four: Ali Mabkhout, Khalfan Mubarak. Jazira possess arguably the league’s most potent attack – and they’re all Emirati. With Mubarak and the returning poster boy of UAE football feeding Mabkhout, the Pride of Abu Dhabi should score goals for fun.
Prediction: With the addition of Mourad Batna and Keno, Jazira’s front line should be fearsome and a title tilt is the very minimum required. If Kosanovic adds ballast at the back, they should be among the favourites.
Coach: Paulo Comelli
2018/19 finish: Champions, First Division League
Star player: Bismark
Major ins: Bismark (loan, Al Qadsiah), Robson (Boavista), Ahmed Al Yassi (Al Nasr), Dodo (loan, Atletico Mineiro), Pedro Junior (Buriram United), Hassan Ameen (Fujairah)
Major outs: Rodriguinho (free transfer), Myroslav Slavov (Riga)
Reason to support: An exciting project to reinvigorate football in this idyllic part of the Emirates is now well under way. Central to the promoted side’s progress not being checked is summer addition Bismark. The 26-year-old midfielder is a regular scorer of staggering goals.
Prediction: The avoidance of relegation is paramount among thoughts at the side known as Al Khaleej until 2017’s rebranding exercise. Well-travelled manager Comelli staved it off at Emirates Club and Dibba Al Fujairah. Can he do the same again? Al Yassi and Robson stiffen the defence, while Bismark and Pedro Junior must strike at the other end. Expect survival.
Coach: Caio Zanardi
2018/19 finish: 8th
Star player: Alvaro Negredo
Major ins: Brandley Kuwas (Heracles Almelo), Toze (Vitoria Guimaraes), Esteban Pavez (Colo-Colo)
Major outs: Joan Oumari (Vissel Kobe), Samuel Rosa (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Junior Dutra (end of loan, Corinthians), Ronnie Fernandez (end of loan, Al Fayha), Ahmed Al Yassi (Khor Fakkan), Masoud Sulaiman (Al Dhafra), Al Hussain Saleh (loan, Al Wahda)
Reason to support: If creature comforts and an Allianz Arena-inspired setting is your thing, then Al Nasr are the club for you. Conveniently located in the heart of Dubai, the renovated Al Maktoum Stadium is already one of Asia’s best arenas. Nasr are also the UAE’s oldest oufit.
Prediction: Predicting what is to come for one of the AGL’s most-erratic sides is a losing game. Negredo has already scored a stupefying goal in the Arabian Gulf Cup. New boys Kuwas and Toze ooze creativity. They should be pushing for AFC Champions League qualification. But will they?
SHABAB AL AHLI DUBAI CLUB
Coach: Rodolfo Arruabarrena
2018/19 finish: 2nd
Star player: Majed Hassan
Major ins: Leonardo (free transfer, Al Wahda), Yousef Jaber (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club), Davide Mariani (Levski Sofia), Fede Cartabia (loan, Deportivo La Coruna)
Major outs: Saeed Jassim (loan, Hatta), Waleed Ambar (loan, Ittihad Kalba), Emiliano Vecchio (end of loan, Santos)
Reason to support: Grafite, Ricardo Quaresma and Fabio Cannavaro all featured for previous itineration, Al Ahli. The current crop won both cups last term and look poised for a title tilt. Leonardo will thrill.
Prediction: The time has come for great promise to be turned into the UAE’s grandest prize. A lack of creativity, however, in last week’s penalty loss to 10-man Sharjah in the Arabian Gulf Super Cup provided a reality check. It’s going to be tight at the top for the double cup holders.
Coach: Abdulaziz Al Anbari
2018/19 finish: Champions
Star player: Igor Coronado
Major ins: Ricardo Gomes (Partizan Belgrade), Tareq Ahmed, Salem Sultan, Mohammed Abdulbasit (all Al Wahda), Mohamed Khalfan (Fujairah)
Major outs: Welliton (free transfer, Al Wasl), Mohammed Salem (Fujairah), Mohamed Ibrahim (Ajman)
Reason to support: For Leicester City in 2015/16, read Sharjah in 2018/19. The King came from nowhere to wear a crown they’d last donned in 1995/96. With new striker Ricardo Gomes already among the goals, they’ll be a stirring watch.
Prediction: The grit demonstrated to play with 10 men for an hour and still defeat Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club on penalties in the Arabian Gulf Super Cup spoke volumes. The AFC Champions League will provide a distraction, but they’ll take some stopping domestically.
Coach: Maurice Steijn
2018/19 finish: 3rd
Star player: Yahya Al Ghassani (r)
Major ins: Carlitos (Legia Warsaw), Nicolas Milesi (Al Dhafra), Al Hussain Saleh (Al Nasr)
Major outs: Mourad Batna (free, Al Jazira), Sultan Al Ghaferi (free, Al Jazira), Tareq Ahmed, Salem Sultan, Mohammed Abdulbasit (all Sharjah), Leonardo (free, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai)
Reason to support: Only cross-city rivals Jazira scored more goals (66) in the AGL last season than Wahda’s 63. So if entertainment is your thing, Al Nahyan Stadium is the place for you.
Prediction: The search for that elusive fifth title stretches into a 10th year. Wahda have been so close in recent years and yet so far. Evergreen Sebastian Tagliabue will keep firing and they have one of the league’s leading talents in Al Ghassani. But the loss of Leonardo leaves a huge hole. They’ll be in the reckoning, but too many rivals have an edge.
Coach: Laurentiu Reghecampf
2018/19 finish: 9th
Star player: Fabio De Lima
Major ins: Fernando Gaibor (loan, Independiente), Welliton (free transfer, Sharjah), Lucas Galvao (FC Ingolstadt), Nasser Abdulhadi (free transfer, Al Wahda), Haboosh Saleh (free transfer, Bani Yas)
Major outs: Caio Canedo (Al Ain), Waheed Ismail (Ajman), Abdulla Kazim (loan, Hatta), Lima (end of loan, Gremio)
Reason to support: The AGL comes alive when Bur Dubai neighbours Al Nasr and Wasl meet. The Cheetahs also boast a certain Diego Maradona among their former coaches, while brilliant Brazilian De Lima is a sensational talent.
Prediction: 2018/19 was a shambles for a club with two-consecutive third-placed finishes. Reghecampf remains ill-suited, while recruitment has been questionable. Mid-table beckons.