Al Ain the team to beat in Arabian Gulf League
Al Ain team
“It is not going to be easy,” the talismanic Al Ain midfielder said last week, when asked about his side’s chances of defending their AGL title.
“This season is going to be different as we have new foreign players and all the other clubs have also strengthened their team with some quality players, at both the foreign and Emirati level.
“So I believe it is going to be a really tough season for all the teams.”
His caution seemed well founded, with Al Ain having lost the services of their formidable centre-forward Asamoah Gyan and suffering poor performances and results during a summer of discontent.
That was, however, until Saturday’s 4-2 Arabian Gulf Super Cup victory over Al Nasr, who were comfortably second best as The Boss epitomised their nickname.
It was a timely and thunderous message to the rest of the league that, at the zenith of their powers, Zlatko Dalic’s men remain the team to beat.
Al Ain’s triumph also went some way to soothing concerns about the loss of Gyan, who was wooed by the bountiful riches of Shanghai SIPG. The Ghanaian struck an extraordinary 95 times in 81 appearances in four seasons in the Garden City, leaving almighty boots to fill.
His replacement, the Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emenike, did not appear cowed by this prospect, however, after netting a fine brace. It was an encouraging display of relentless running and industry from the Fenerbahce loanee, who had failed to score in five friendlies previously.
The club’s other foreign buys, Dutch winger Ryan Babel and Brazilian midfielder Fellipe Bastos, had contrasting nights. Apart from a delightful assist for one of Emenike’s goals, Babel lived up to his reputation for, in football parlance, going missing.
Glimpses of class
But there were glimpses of class from the winger, while Bastos controlled the midfield with aplomb.
Overall, though, coach Dalic was unhappy with the performances of his players and these exacting standards will be vital in the arduous season to come.
For, as Abdul Rahman alluded to, Al Ain’s rivals have fortified themselves with some eye-catching acquisitions in the close season and will certainly pose a significant challenge to their supremacy.
Last season’s runners-up Al Jazira were fuelled by the 25 goals of Mirko Vucinic, the ex-Juventus man ending Gyan’s three-year reign as the league’s top goalscorer. However, a concerted title charge was eventually derailed by the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s flimsy rearguard, which shipped the third-highest number of goals in the league, 46.
A trophyless campaign led to the axe for manager Eric Gerets, the former Belgium central defender surprisingly impotent in addressing such a costly and glaring failing given his previous incarnation. In his stead is the last man to have led Al Jazira to silverware, Abel Braga, who presided over 2011 Arabian Gulf League and UAE President’s Cup success.
He said: “What I am looking for is to do it all over again. It is not about Abel Braga, but success can be achieved only with the squad we have assembled for the new season.”
It’s a squad primed for success, too, with Vucinic retained and joined by a trio of excellent signings.
In have come the thrusting figure of Peru winger Jefferson Farfan, Brazilian attacking midfielder Thiago Neves and South Korea defensive midfielder Park Jong-woo.
Their arrivals have been offset by the exits of key men such as Jonathan Pitroipa to AGL rivals Al Nasr and the Argentinian midfielder Manuel Lanzini on a season-long loan to West Ham.
A potent attacking threat is assured via a front three of Farfan, Vucinic and Ali Mabkhout, but central defender Fares Juma’s arrival from Al Ain could be even more crucial given their 2014/15 shortcomings.
New-look Al Ain and Al Jazira will not be fighting it out alone for the title, however, in view of their rivals’ similarly shrewd summer spending sprees.
Last season’s third-place side, Al Shabab, have bolstered their forward line with the addition of the oft-derided Brazilian striker Jo.
While he may have floundered in the English Premier League with Everton and Manchester City, scoring just six goals between 2008 and 2011, he has still won 20 caps for his country.
Meanwhile, another well-known Brazilian, Denilson, has moved to the side that finished a place below Al Shabab last season, Al Wahda.
The former Arsenal man is joined in the Al Wahda engine room by one of the signings of the summer, midfielder Jorge Valdivia. The mercurial playmaker scintillated in Chile’s Copa America victory on home soil in July and Al Wahda fought off interest from China and Saudi Arabia to secure his signature.
Elsewhere, cup specialists Al Nasr will be hoping that the elusive running of Pitroipa and the nous of Brazil striker Nilmar will help them wed AGL consistency to their knockout prowess.
Nilmar’s fellow Brazilian, midfielder Renan Garcia, is another new face, while snaring the out-of-contract Al Ahli schemer Luis Jimenez was a masterstroke by coach Ivan Jovanovic. His enterprising side delivered President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup successes last season and they will be desperate to improve on last year’s fifth-place finish.
The 2014 champions Al Ahli will also be eager to recapture their best form, having finished a disappointing seventh last season. A woeful goalscoring return — they netted only 35 goals in 26 matches, 31 behind leading scorers Al Jazira — looks to have been addressed through the recruitment of Brazilian forward Rodrigo Lima from Benfica.
The early signs are promising, with Lima on target three times pre-season, and coach Cosmin Olaroiu fully expects the 32-year-old to provide a cutting edge.
“Last season, we suffered when Ahmad Khalil wasn’t scoring,” Olaroiu said. “Now, with Lima’s addition, our attacking threat will increase because he has the character and experience to improve the team in general as well as increasing the number of goals.”
Whether their Asian Champions League quarter-final with Iranian club Naft Tehran later this month proves a distraction from domestic matters remains to be seen, however.
Bani Yas’s triple swoop for former Australia captain, midfielder Mark Milligan, and strikers Joaquin Larrivey and Ishak Belfodil, represents another astute foray into the transfer market.
Thirty-year-olds Milligan and Argentina’s Larrivey, who has arrived from Spanish La Liga side Celta Vigo, will provide much-needed experience for boss Luis Garcia.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Algerian tyro Belfodil will be hungry to prove himself, having failed to make a major impact with several Italian clubs.
Statement of intent
Emerging Emirates have also made an impressive statement of intent with two commendable buys.
Australian midfielder Brett Holman will hope to instil a winning mentality at the Ras Al Khaimah outfit following his cup-winning exploits with Al Nasr.
And yet another Brazilian striker, ex-Benfica frontman Rodrigo Pimpao, should provide the requisite firepower to help coach and compatriot Paulo Comelli better last season’s 10th place.
Newly promoted Dibba and Al Shaab will, in contrast, be eyeing mere survival. Central to that aim is, of course, scoring goals and Dibba have done well to secure the services of the bustling Ivory Coast marksman Boris Kabi from relegated Kalba.
All in all, a dizzying array of new talent promises a feast of excitement and intrigue in 2015/16.
Even without the incomparable Gyan, Al Ain should prevail to win their fourth championship in five seasons and extend their record to 13.
They possess quality in every position, from towering centre-back Esmail Ahmad to the prodigious Abdul Rahman brothers in midfield, and are roared on by the most fanatical fans in the league.
However, they would be advised to heed Abdul Rahman’s sense of foreboding and beware of a voracious chasing pack bristling with renewed strength and intent.