Certainties are in short supply as the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League kicks off this weekend after a summer of sweeping change.
The current tumult had its genesis last May. Surprise mergers of Al Shabab, Al Ahli and promoted Dubai CSC to create Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club plus Sharjah’s amalgamation with First Division League-neighbours Al Shaab brought an era of austerity glaringly into life.
Declining oil prices and shrinking largesse from owners has caught up with a once-free-spending competition, whose number has dropped from 14 to 12 teams for the first time since 2011/12. Allied with the UAE’s painful failure this month to make World Cup 2018 and the fact a two-year run of providing beaten AFC Champions League finalists is at an end, its competitors must battle a narrative of genuine regression for the first time since professionalism’s introduction in 2008/09.
This drive for self-sustainability has seen Al Ain’s ¤3 million (Dh12.3m) purchase of starting Sweden striker Marcus Berg from Panathinaikos the standout transaction. Quite the drop from Ahli’s ¤17m (Dh70m) capture of Senegal forward Moussa Sow from Fenerbahce two years ago.
The move from bull to bear market – Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro moving to Flamengo from Ahli and Sharjah cashing in on Al Hilal’s move for Venezuela centre forward Gelmin Rivas – adds an unpredictable edge. Whether this becomes a welcome switch in status will be decided by the quality of games on offer during the coming months.
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On the pitch, this slow-burning, transformative trend was evidenced last term by Henk ten Cate’s freewheeling Al Jazira breaking the interminable duopoly of Al Ain and – the now defunct – Ahli in revitalising style for the first time since their prior success in 2010/11. This latest triumph was earned with the most points (68) and wins (22) since the division turned professional.
Such enlivening statistics provide a ray of hope in troubled times.
After the adroit Pride of Abu Dhabi prepared for December’s Club World Cup on home soil by adding UAE forward Ahmed Khalil, ex-France anchorman Lassana Diarra, Uzbekistan winger Sardor Rashidov and Brazilian attacker Romarinho on free transfers, a new era of one-team dominance may await.
A long way back for the established powers beckons after shock second-placed finishers Al Wasl retained coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena and batted away interest from across the Arabian Gulf in brilliant Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima.
The new Shabab Al Ahli are yet to bring in a single player as trophy-hoarding boss Cosmin Olaroiu navigates troubled waters.
In Al Ain, 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman again resisted European overtures but there have been few other positives since boss Zoran Mamic’s February poaching from Al Nassr in Riyadh.
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Coaching changes dominate for President’s Cup holders Al Wahda and the team they defeated, Al Nasr. The Clarets welcome beaten 2014 ACL finalist Laurentiu Reghecampf, while Cesare Prandelli’s coaching career has slumped since leading Italy to Euro 2012’s showpiece.
Al Dhafra have banked on Iraq’s Mohannad Abdul-Raheem to replace the goals of Syria forward Omar Khrbin. In contrast, amalgamated Sharjah have left their foreign business ludicrously late – although Wednesday night’s deal for emerging Chile midfielder Cesar Pinares could be the window’s best.
At the bottom, an expected play-off because of the move back to 14 for 2018/19 makes the situations of promoted Ajman, Hatta, Dibba Al Fujairah and Emirates Club potentially less parlous.
But like everything else in this top flight adapting to a new reality, ironclad predictions remain folly until the action unfolds.
Amman’s undulating hills and the chaotic, labyrinthlike streets they lead onto provide a fascinating background for a date with destiny, nearly a decade in the making for the UAE’s cherished ‘Golden Generation’.
A day that promises nerve jangling excitement, tribal passion and pained impatience awaits as nations spanning the breadth of Asia learn whether they had been fated to make next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
The rolling geography of this Middle Eastern outpost provides a fitting backdrop to a tumultuous campaign for the Whites.
From the enthusiasm of third place at the 2015 Asian Cup which slowly ebbed away throughout a trying opening stage. To the troubling acceptance paternal coach Mahdi Ali could take them no further and the burst of enthusiasm delivered by last week’s authoritative 2-1 victory against footballing overlords Saudi Arabia, which means their neighbours remain, somehow, in the mix for a second ever appearance at the World Cup.
The odds are stacked against troops becoming increasing battle hardened under new man Edgardo Bauza. A walloping victory alone against revitalised Iraq – forced to play their home games at neutral venues because of civil war – at the dilapidated Amman International Stadium will not be enough to gate crash the hallowed top three in Group B.
Not unless this is allied with surprising, and substantial, losses for the Saudis or Australia – nations for whom a deeper relationship has been forged with the World Cup finals.
Yet it is the feeling that the UAE’s brush with entering the tournament is fleeting which makes Tuesday’s outcome ever more precious.
Sheer weight of numbers ensure a country which counts its indigenous population at approximately 1.4 million will struggle to consistently make global events. Talents have shone since the cherished crop of Adnan Al Talyani, Ali Thani and Fahad Khamees ran-out at Italia ’90. These include the ceaseless Subait Khater and gifted Ismail Matar, a returnee to the starting line-up in this international break.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) September 4, 2017
There have been further highlights on home soil, when making the 1996 Asian Cup final and winning the Matar-inspired 2007 Gulf Cup. But when will another crop emerge which has produced the last two AFC Players of the Year in Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman, plus the 2015 Asian Cup top scorer in Ali Mabkhout?
Never mind Khamis Esmail, Ismail Al Hammadi and the rest of a fine supporting cast.
This ominous question hangs over the impending action. Even when accounting for FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s expansionist plans in the next decade.
A final push must occur, no matter Khalil is the only big hitter who’ll take to the pitch because of suspensions and injuries.
Forget the allure of the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE. For a group which first emerged with victory in 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship, played in the London 2012 Olympics and claimed the 2013 Gulf Cup, this was always the true prize.
Ignore the unfavourable standings in Group B. Their true legacy will rest on this outcome.
AMMAN// Undiminished UAE coach Edgardo Bauza has “great confidence” his adopted nation can perform a miracle against Iraq on Tuesday and sneak into World Cup 2018, despite a plethora of big-name absentees.
The Whites have headed to Jordan bursting with enthusiasm after last week’s do-or-die 2-1 win against Saudi Arabia kept their push for next summer’s tournament, just about, alive into the last game of the third-and-final round. To stand any chance of infiltrating the top three, they must now thrash eliminated opponents, hope the Saudis and/or Australia are defeated in their engagements, plus pull off a gargantuan swing of at least six in goal difference.
This Herculean task has been stiffened by the unavailability through injury or suspension of key men such as 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, Arabian Gulf League top scorer Ali Mabkhout and influential holding midfielder Khamis Esmail. But for the sanguine Bauza, for whom June’s debut 1-1 draw in Thailand appears increasingly costly, he was convinced a second-ever entry is still eminently possible.
“We know very well the importance of the game and the need to win it, despite the many absences in the team,” said the 59-year-old, who was dismissed by his native Argentine in April after eight miserable matches. “Such cases undoubtedly impact any team in our circumstances, but I have great confidence.
“I wanted to play with the same squad we played Saudi Arabia, but I say that the team has 27 players who are all qualified to play and represent the country. I hope that the team and its players will make it their day and we will succeed in winning the three points.
“Iraq are a strong team that includes players who combine experience and youth. They depend on their physical side and long balls.
“Through watching videos of them technically, we will work well to combat the team during the game in order to win.”
For the Lions of Mesopotamia, who were beaten 2-0 in Abu Dhabi under Mahdi Ali last November, they have been cast as wrecking balls for their opponents’ hopes at Amman International Stadium.
Since the summer arrival of coach Basim Qasim – who was part of the Iraq team who epically denied UAE a berth at World Cup 1986 – a marked improvement has been witnessed. A 1-1 draw was recorded against Group B-leaders Japan on his competitive debut and they beat Thailand 2-1 last Tuesday.
Columbus Crew forward Justin Meram struck in the latter match and he promised his country would be no walkovers.
“This match is going to be a difficult one, said the 28-year-old, who was born in the United States. “The UAE are a quality team with quality players, we must be prepared for that.
“We must defend very well and will give our all for our country.”
Elsewhere in the pool, the UAE will hope Japan will rouse themselves to beat the Saudis in Jeddah even though a sixth-successive finals place has been earned and the bottom-placed Thais can stun the Socceroos in Melbourne.
A top-two finish guarantees qualification, while the third-placed sides from each group will meet next month to earn a spot in November’s inter-confederation play-off versus a CONCACAF side.