Sport360's Arabian Gulf League reporter Matt Jones looks ahead to a new season as the 2018/19 campaign gets under way on Thursday
Local football returns a little sooner than usual this weekend as the Arabian Gulf League resumes, with the intense heat of the UAE summer matched equally by the warmth of the reception it will receive from football fans in the Emirates.
Ahead of Thursday’s big kick-off, here are some talking points going in to 2018/19:
CAN AL AIN COPE WITH THE LOSS OF AMOORY?
The story of the summer, the best player in the league, one of the finest Asia has ever produced, was sensationally wrenched from the bosom of Al Ain, where he had been for nearly half of his life.
Initially Omar Abdulrahman was said to be returning to boyhood club Al Hilal on a season-long loan, before it was announced he had refused to sign a new contract and was gone for good.
It seems the worst time for the Boss to lose their top employee – they appear to be approaching somewhere near their peak again after last year’s double. How can they possibly cope with the loss of such a generational talent?
If the Arabian Gulf Super Cup is anything to go by, they might be just fine. Wahda – runners-up last year – stormed into a 3-0 lead in Cairo before the Boss bounced back to draw 3-3 and take the game to penalties.
The Clarets eventually triumphed but with Amoory gone, the stage is set for Hussein El Shahat – a revelation after arriving in January – to provide Sweden’s World Cup striker Marcus Berg with the ammunition to fire more goals than the league-leading 25 he netted in his debut campaign.
REST OF THE PACK SHOULD PACK A PUNCH
Of course, the loss of such a superstar will have the rest of the top teams believing the title race is wide open – and it should be.
Wahda were contenders for three quarters of the season before fading badly following an epic 6-2 defeat to Al Ain – who scored four goals in the final 18 minutes – in March. They looked sensational in the first 45 minutes in the Super Cup final and have guaranteed goals in Argentine veteran Sebastian Tagliabue – last season’s Best Foreign Player.
Wasl, who were transformed in Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s maiden campaign in 2016/17, faded badly in his second. But they have retained Brazilian sensation Fabio De Lima and have an all Brazilian foreign legion now, while also drafting in talented UAE anchorman Khamis Esmail.
Al Nasr reinstalled Ivan Jovanovic as coach after the failed Cesare Prandelli experiment mid-season and he has recruited brilliantly this summer – France international Yohan Cabaye the most eye-catching, but Mohamed Al Akbari, Samuel Rosa and Habib Fardan are all exquisite additions. The Blue Wave should be crashing the title race.
We should also expect much more from Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, who struggled in their first season as a newly-merged entity and lost enigmatic coach Cosmin Olaroiu too. They should be a far more settled and stronger presence.
A RETURN TO NORMALITY
As ever, the bottom of the table should provide just as much drama as the title-contending top teams. And there is plenty to play for this season with the league returning to 14 teams, meaning there is more margin for error.
New boys Ittihad Kalba and the now Maradona-shorn Fujairah will be instantly pegged for the bottom two spots following their promotion from First Division League and their reputation as yo-yo clubs in recent years.
Kalba and the Wolves will certainly need to focus on keeping the wolves from the door, but will likely have perennial strugglers Emirates Club for company, as well as Dibba Al Fujairah and Ajman, who will surely struggle to emulate last season’s heroic eighth-placed finish.
Whatever happens at the bottom, it won’t be dull.
ROUND 1 FIXTURES:
14:55 Al Nasr v Ajman
15:00 Al Dhafra v Sharjah
17:30 Al Wasl v Dibba Al Fujairah
14:50 Emirates Club v Al Ain
14:50 Fujairah v Bani Yas
17:30 Shabab Al Ahli Dubai v Al Jazira
17:30 Al Wahda v Ittihad Kalba