The new season will kick off on September 14 and part two of our series ahead of the opening day looks at 20 names expected to do well in the rebranded Arabian Gulf League.
Omar Abdulrahman (Al Ain)
While rumours of a European transfer persist, the UAE's golden boy remains at Al Ain for the time being. It is very much the league's gain. Arsenal were the latest to register interest, seeking to take the prodigious playmaker on trial only to see their approach rejected. Al Ain's desire to retain the country's most stylish player is understandable – given his talent, Abdulrahman is as valuable as an extra foreign player. As pre-season portrayed, he will enjoy linking with Michel Bastos to give Al Ain the division's finest attacking line-up. Abdulrahman slowed late last season, but Al Ain's squad has been augmented partly with a view to resting him whenever needed. When on the pitch, there are few as influential.
Grafite (Al Ahli)
A player of considerable repute in Europe, many suspected the Brazilian's June 2011 move to Ahli was motivated solely by a desire to swell his pension fund. He was already 32 years old. Grafite quickly set about dispelling that idea, scoring 16 goals in 21 league matches, while 13 strikes in 12 Etisalat Cup encounters helped Ahli seal that trophy. He was better, last year, finding the net 24 times in 20 league matches to prove the division's second-best striker for a second successive season. As captain, he is Ahli's captain fantastic and should excel with a stronger support cast. He may be 34, but Grafite's enthusiasm remains unaffected – he wants the Golden Boot, and the league trophy, this term.
Ricardo Oliveira (Al Jazira)
A supreme 2011/12 was always going to be difficult to replicate. The Brazilian struck 40 goals in 38 matches across four competitions for Jazira to earn a new two-year deal. Oliveira, at Dh72.5 million the most expensive signing in UAE football, was expected to provide the firepower to launch a title challenge, but a change in coach in February curtailed those aspirations. Despite the distraction, Oliveira still managed 17 goals from 22 league appearances, lifting his record to 49 in 66. The former Real Betis man remains one of the most fearsome strikers in the country, and should greatly benefit from the service of Abdelaziz Barrada, Jazira's new playmaker. Pacey and a lethal finisher, Oliveira will prosper yet again.
Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain)
Al Ain's domestic dominance can be traced to the Ghanaian's arrival, in the summer of 2011, when the Garden City club paid Sunderland of England around Dh34 million – to secure his services on a season-long loan. Gyan immediately repaid Al Ain's faith, scoring 22 league goals to land the Golden Boot and fire his side to a first title in eight years. His temporary arrangement was made permanent, and Gyan easily out-did himself: he became the first player to break the 30-goal barrier in a single UAE campaign, another Golden Boot secured. Gyan is the sharp edge to the champions' rounded attack. With Michel Bastos added, expect him to get even better.
Boris Kabi (Ajman)
An unfashionable club ensures the Ajman striker is never quite in vogue, but it is a surprise none of the so-called "big" sides have moved for him. Kabi guarantees goals, evidenced by last season's contribution: 23 in 25 league matches. Strong, and excellent in the air, he is integral to Ajman's ambitions, which last season produced a Etisalat Cup victory over Jazira.
FIVE VETERAN EXPATRIATES
Driss Fettouhi (Ajman)
Few outside Ajman would have expected the Moroccan to perform as he did following his January transfer. Yet Fettouhi soon underlined his position as captain of his country's Olympic team with a series of fine displays. Employed on the left, the elegant midfielder's skill set includes expert control and the delivery of a killer pass. A pleasure to watch.
Mariano Donda (Al Wasl)
The club's struggles last season found root in Bruno Metsu's unfortunate illness and a serious knee injury halted their star playmaker. The Dubai club have celebrated Donda's return to full fitness, as the Argentine is considered the young squad's mentor. A dead-ball specialist and the man to keep his side ticking.
Carlos Villanueva (Al Shabab)
With his 2012/13 season ruined before it began, the Chilean orchestrator is fit and eager to revisit the form that saw him rightly labelled one of the league's best. Cunning and capable, Villanueva will be Shabab's director guy this year. If he stays fit, he will have no problem burnishing that reputation.
Makhete Diop (Al Dhafra)
Where would the Al Gharbia side be without their powerful striker? Probably drifting along in the first division. Diop sparkled during his debut campaign last term, scoring 22 times in 30 matches across all competitions. A formidable presence, he is particularly dangerous from crosses. Imagine what he can do now he knows the league well.
Ciel (Al Ahli)
Only players of a certain composition can handle the heat that comes with transferring between rivals and Ciel conveys he will have little problem adjusting. Al Shabab green has given way to Ahli red, with the Brazilian an excellent addition to Cosmin Olaroiu's new-look side. Ciel is menacing and mercurial, and can unlock the tightest matches.
Amer Abdulrahman (Baniyas)
Emboldened by a recent trial in England with Blackburn Rovers, the diminutive Baniyas midfielder can outshine the majority of his compatriots this season. His is a commanding presence, combining probing passing with strong positional awareness. A willing runner, if the broken jaw he suffered in Riyadh on OSN Cup duty is not debilitating, he should be the perfect foil to a remodelled midfield that boasts a striking Latin American flavour.
Walid Abbas (Al Ahli)
Since his shock move from Al Shabab, the new signing's worth has been demonstrated with Ahli, but also by his former coach, Marcos Paqueta, repeatedly bemoaning his loss. Abbas is one of the UAE's most experienced defenders and can operate at full-back or in the centre. No matter where he is deployed, Abbas represents an assured presence and is also dangerous going forward.
Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)
Described last season by teammate Ricardo Oliveira as potentially "the best striker in the UAE", the Al Jazira forward could live up to that billing if given minutes on the pitch. Dislodging his expat colleagues will be difficult, but Mabkhout's steady improvement demonstrates resolve. Quality movement is his finest weapon and his finishing is starting to support the feeling that Oliveira's praise was indeed justified.
Khalid Essa (Al Ain)
When Cosmin Olaroiu, then Al Ain coach, suggested 65 per cent of his side's goals conceded were the result of goalkeeping blunders, it was obvious what the champions required. In came Al Jazira's Essa, a gifted shot stopper kept out of the team only by Ali Kasheif's consistent brilliance. With Al Ain able to steamroll most opponents, Essa's input will be crucial in matches against title rivals.
Ismail Al Hammadi (Al Ahli)
Look at Al Ahli's attack and it is difficult not to be immediately drawn to names such as Grafite, Ciel and Luis Jimenez. Also lurking among that collection of stars is Al Hammadi, a winger of real talent. He found his scoring touch late last season, his slalom run and finish against Al Nasr was confirmation of his ability. As exciting and direct as they come.
FIVE NEW ARRIVALS
Hugo Viana (Al Ahli)
Having been first pictured enjoying, from the stands, Ahli's President's Cup final victory in May, the Portuguese midfielder appears to have been around for a while. It sums up Viana's career. Once a bright young prospect in Europe, he struggled to meet expectations, but those pinpoint passes from his left foot have endured. Viana will be the conductor to a rocking Ahli side. At 30, he still has something to prove, too.
Michel Bastos (Al Ain)
Arguably the summer's best bit of business. Al Ain's latest recruit arrives with seven seasons of football in France's Ligue 1, as well as experience in the Uefa Champions League, while at Lyon. He is likely to emerge as a key contributor in their title defence. Technically proficient, he has pace and a knack for the spectacular. Asamoah Gyan is already thrilled by the supply from the Brazilian's left foot.
Abdelaziz Barrada (Al Jazira)
Jazira pulled off a coup in convincing the Getafe midfielder to join. A cultured playmaker with great vision, Barrada is also a set-piece master.
Ibrahima Toure (Al Nasr)
With Leonardo Lima the only foreign player retained by Nasr, the club spent the summer searching for upgrades up front. In Toure, they have acquired exactly that. The Senegalese forward, who scored 14 goals in half a season with Ajman, is a proven scorer who inspired Monaco's return to the French top flight. An aerial threat, Toure displays a cool head with the goal at his mercy. Given the right service, he will contest the Golden Boot.
Carlos Munoz (Baniyas)
Given his protracted transfer, Baniyas fans spent the summer wondering if they would ever witness the inventive Chilean in their colours. Munoz will be worth the wait. The forward struck 60 times in 123 league matches in his homeland, with Santiago Wanderers and Colo-Colo. A tricky technician, Munoz had previously interested Al Ain. The champions will hope they have not missed a golden opportunity.
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