Arabian Gulf League: Alvaro Negredo's Al Nasr, super Sharjah and flocking fans feature in 2019/20's pleasant surprises

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(All UAE Pro League).

An extended international break has provided added opportunity to reflect on the early rounds of a burgeoning 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League.

The opening seven matchdays have certainly produced their fair share of pleasant surprises. Here is a rundown of the main five:

NO SLOWDOWN FROM SHARJAH

In sport, they say you can’t be a real champion until you defend your title.

If this adage is correct, then genuine pedigree is an uncommon commodity in UAE football. No team since Al Ain in 2011/12-2012/13 have retained the trophy, while only the subsumed Al Ahli (2007/08-2008/09) managed the feat this Millennium since the aforementioned Boss reigned supreme from 2001/02-2003/04.

These rarefied sides, it appears, will soon have company.

Holders Sharjah have bolted out of the starting blocks. They possess both a three-point lead and the division’s only unbeaten record.

Reigning Foreign Player of the Year Igor Coronado is second-top scorer (eight) and the leading assist maker (seven). Welliton-replacement Ricardo Gomes has presented a new dimension up top, while veteran midfielder Mohammed Al Shehhi is evergreen.

They’ve notched a late double to defeat Al Ain in October’s grandstand 3-2 triumph and come back from 2-0 down in second-half injury time to, unfathomably, draw 2-2 at promoted Hatta.

Led by the AGL’s only Emirati boss, Abdulaziz Al Anbari, highly motivated troops are achieving all this while remaining an utter joy to behold. The King’s crown is not likely to slip.

FANS COME FLOODING BACK

Organisers the UAE Pro League have sunk significant resources into attracting supporters to the AGL’s 14 teams.

Entertaining social media, ease of access through PlatinumList.net’s electronic ticketing, enlarged English commentary to appeal to a larger fan base and generous use of matchday prizes have, on the early evidence, gained notable reward. An approximate threefold rise in attendance, according to Wikipedia, has been witnessed as fans flock into the grounds – the highlight being the near 15,000 that attended November 1’s goalless draw between Al Ain and Al Jazira.

Those that make the trip – from Madinat Zayed to Dubai, Kalba to Abu Dhabi – have been rewarded by a bright atmosphere and gripping play.

Long may this upwards trend continue.

NASR GIVEN NEW LIFE

A sleeping giant may have, finally, been awoken.

Al Nasr were founded in 1945 and are considered the UAE’s oldest club. They’ve entertained Pele’s Santos in the 1970s, all the way up to Mesut Ozil and Co with Arsenal this March.

The Blue Wave, however, last won the top flight 33 years ago and their start to this campaign was a complete washout. October’s hire of ex-Croatia midfielder Krunoslav Jurcic has transformed their fortunes.

A perfect four-match winning spree – after an opening three games under Caio Zanardi that delivered one point – has got them up to fourth. Former Spain and Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo has netted three times across these matches.

If this surge continues, and there is no reason the squad’s latent talents should go back to being hidden, they may emerge as Sharjah’s strongest contenders.

SHABAB AL AHLI’S SHOCK STAR

A pre-season poll designed to select both Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s most-exciting summer addition and lead attacking threat would have been dominated by one name – Leonardo.

Fast forward to the present, however, and the electric ex-Al Wahda forward has been decisively usurped.

Yousif Jaber ended a nine-year stint at Bani Yas to little fanfare last summer.

The 34-year-old left-back has, incredulously, emerged from nowhere to be his new employers’ joint-top AGL scorer (two) and lead assist maker (four). He’s also back in the UAE XI for the first time since 2012.

Such form has gifted a heart-warming tale of perseverance and enduring talent.

STRIKING A POSITIVE NOTE

Goals are the fuel in football’s furnace – and the AGL has plenty to chuck on the fire.

Togo international Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba leads the way on eight – half of which came in the 7-1 thrashing of Fujairah. Some pick-up on a free transfer by Al Ain.

The chasing pack behind him includes the likes of Coronado, Wahda’s peerless Sebastian Tagliabue (both six) and Ittihad Kalba’s ex-Germany Under-21 striker Peniel Mlapa.

The revered Negredo is only joint eighth, so deep is the scoring talent.

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