DUBAI // Grafite, the Al Ahli striker, says his side need to begin the season well if they have genuine aspirations of winning the Pro League title.
The Dubai club struggled in the opening months of the 2011/12 campaign, gleaning four points from their opening six games - a period that included heavy defeats to Al Jazira and Al Nasr, and the GCC Club Championship final loss to neighbours Al Shabab.
The poor run contributed to the dismissal of Ivan Hasek, the Czech coach who led Ahli to the league trophy in the inaugural Pro League season in 2008/09, with Quique Sanchez Flores, the former Valencia and Atletico Madrid manager, installed as his successor at the Sheikh Rashid Stadium.
Under the Spaniard, Ahli regrouped, eventually finishing fifth in the table and lifted the Etisalat Cup in May following a penalty shoot-out win against Shabab.
"We need to begin the season strongly, but I have a good feeling about this team and this season," Grafite, the Brazilian striker, said. "It won't be the same as last year because now we have Quique and the training has gone really well."
Ahli face three of last season's top four in the first five games of the season.
They travel to champions Al Ain for the first match of the new season before games against Al Jazira (home), Al Wasl (away), Al Shabab (home) and the promoted Kalba (away).
Grafite added: "We've been able to organise the team better as the UAE Olympic team players are back and we've a full squad of 25 or 26 here. Last year, for our training camp in Prague, I remember we had only 20 players as others were with the national team and didn't join us until late.
"That wasn't good because you need a full group for the first few games so you can start strong. Now we have that.
"And [Cameroon international] Achille Emana has signed a permanent contract, and [Chilean playmaker] Luis Jimenez is staying. I also finished the season well and this year I will continue to fight on the pitch for myself and my teammates."
Grafite's prowess in front of goal last season - the former Wolfsburg striker netted 30 times in 35 games - ensured Faisal Khalil, winner of the 2007 Gulf Cup with the UAE international side, found himself perennially on the sidelines.
A lack of playing time prompted Khalil to join Al Wasl last week on a one-year loan deal, where Grafite is sure his former teammate can be a success.
"Last season, journalists always asked me about him, saying he didn't play because I was here, that big names from outside come to this league and take the local players' places," the 33 year old said. "This is football.
"We lost a big player, but it's better for Faisal to go somewhere where he can play a lot of games. He's a very good striker with too much quality not to be starting.
"I sent him a message on Wednesday to say 'good luck'. I hope he plays a lot and scores goals because it's a good opportunity to again show the fans he has the quality to be at the top."
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