Matt Jones believes opening weekend in the Arabian Gulf League suggests the 2018/19 title race could be a closely-contested affair
It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions after one round of fixtures, but there was enough evidence to suggest on opening weekend that the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League title race could be a keenly contested one.
Al Wahda – last season’s runners-up – plundered six goals in a 6-2 thrashing of newly promoted Ittihad Kalba. They look impressive in attack and have already secured the Arabian Gulf Super Cup – they stormed into a 3-0 lead against AGL champions and President’s Cup winners Al Ain in Cairo last week before eventually capitulating and allowing the Boss back in it, although they did still win on penalties.
Al Wasl easily dispatched Dibba Al Fujairah 3-0 with Fabio De Lima and summer signing Vinicius Lima, a fellow Brazilian, both on target.
Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and Al Jazira shared nine goals in a scintillating 5-4 triumph for the Pride of Abu Dhabi.
It was an encounter full of attacking zest that suggested both sides could be on the road to recovery after dismal 2017/18 campaigns.
Shabab Al Ahli seemed bogged down by off-field drama last year in what was a transitional campaign following the merger, while Jazira looked worn out by their FIFA Club World Cup exploits and a draining title-winning campaign a year earlier.
And then there is the Omar Abdulrahman-less Al Ain, who despite being shorn of their talisman, put on a show that suggested it will be business as usual, winning 3-1 at Emirates Club.
The one exception to the rule on opening day was Al Nasr – who after a stupendous summer of impressive business, slumped to a 1-0 home defeat against Ajman, last season’s surprise package.
It’s been a while since a genuine duel was fought out for the league championship – Wahda finishing seven points adrift of Al Ain last year was the narrowest gap between the champions and runners-up in eight years, since the Clarets last tasted title triumph, in 2009/10.
They went toe to toe with the Boss before a soul destroying 6-2 defeat at the beginning of March left their title challenge in tatters and saw them fall away. But they look fired up and in ferocious form in the early embers of this campaign.
After underperforming last term, we should expect Wasl’s brilliant Brazilian foreign legion to help the Cheetahs step up the pace, while Nasr are too talented – and have the shrewd and tactically astute Ivan Jovanovic guiding them – to let an opening day blip derail their bid to hoist a maiden league title in 33 years.
Shabab Al Ahli and Al Jazira’s defences will need to tighten up if they are to count themselves as serious contenders, but they both showed in their goal-laden encounter that they ooze brilliance and ballast in attack, they just need to bolt the back door shut.
And then there’s the Boss, who until someone pushes them off the top and says otherwise, remain in charge.
Strap yourselves in, 2018/19 could be epic.