Which team has the best attack in the Arabian Gulf League? A majority of UAE football fans would plump for Al Ain and Al Ahli without a moment’s pause.
Given their riches of attacking talent, those two would be the obvious candidates. Any team boasting the likes of Asamoah Gyan, top scorer for two consecutive seasons, Omar Abdulrahman, Michel Bastos and Alex Brosque would rightly be an automatic choice.
And then Ahli boast Grafite, Ciel, Luis Jimenez, Ismail Al Hammadi and Ahmed Khalil in their ranks.
Yet, both have been a bit slow off the mark this season.
Ahli have scored only five goals in three league matches; only Sharjah (four), Al Nasr (four), Dubai (four) and Al Shaab (three) have scored less. Last season, Ahli hit six in their opening game – against Al Ain.
The Garden City club, meanwhile, have scored six till now; last season, they had 14 from their first three games.
Baniyas, Al Wahda and Al Jazira currently lead the goalscoring charts with eight each, while Al Shabab and Al Wasl have scored seven apiece.
These contributions have made sure the start of this season is more prolific than the last.
The first 21 matches have produced 79 goals, which is three more than last year, an impressive ratio of 3.76 goals per game.
Interestingly, the majority of these goals have come in the second half.
Only Wahda have scored more in the first half (six); four of their goals have come in the opening 10 minutes. Baniyas have scored four in the first half and Wasl three, while Jazira and Shabab have scored only two of their goals in the opening 45 minutes.
Perhaps, the summer heat is to blame for the slow starts. Maybe inspirational pep talks – or the dreaded hair dryer treatment – during half-time intervals explain the differential between goals scored in the first half to the second, which currently is a lopsided 29 to 50.
The first 10 minutes have so far been the most productive of the first session, with 13 goals scored. Seventeen goals have come in the opening 20 minutes of the first half, but the most prolific period of the second has been the 10 minutes after the hour mark with 15 goals scored.
Two of Ahli’s five goals have come during this period. They have scored only once in the first half.
Furthermore, two of their three wins have come in time added on, with Ahmed Khalil saving them against Dubai (1-0) and Grafite securing three points against Wahda (2-1).
Those statistics may not make for great reading but Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu prefers to look at the positives.
“It is important to win all the time and get the points, but it is also important to show we have the character to fight till the end,” he said after the win over Wahda last month.
Of course, any coach would be proud of a team that fights till the final whistle, but that alone is not the reason for Ahli’s unbeaten start in the league.
Their abundance of riches to call on from the bench certainly helps.
Against Dubai, Olaroiu could summon Adnan Hussain, Humaid Abbas and Khalil off the bench, the latter scored to help get three points.
Against Wahda, Hussain, Khalil and Hugo Viana were the three substitutes used, while against Al Nasr, Khalil, Abbas and Amer Mubarak came off the bench with Ahli leading 2-0.
All the other coaches in the Arabian Gulf League must be looking enviously at the Ahli bench.
Any of these players would be assured of a starting place at most other clubs, but Ahli can afford to keep them in reserve and bring them on to turn things around when the opposition is tiring.
This could be the difference between Ahli and the others towards the business end of the season, when the top teams will be battling for honours on different fronts, including Asia.
In the past, teams such as Al Shabab and Al Nasr have struggled in the run in because of their lack of bench strength.
Marcos Paqueta, the Shabab coach, noted those shortcomings after the loss to Al Jazira.
The visitors were missing two foreign players – Nelson Valdez to injury and Shin Hyung-min and Abdullah Moosa through suspension, and yet they returned home with a 4-2 win.
The importance of good substitutes was illustrated recently in Al Dhafra’s stunning 4-3 win over Al Ain as well.
Their Ghanaian recruit Emmanuel Clottey came on at the start of the second half and finished the game with a hat-trick. Although of course, Clottey’s performance means he is unlikely to start on the bench in future.
What about the bench strength of the other teams, the main contenders for the title?
None of them seem close to the quality that Ahli boast, save perhaps Al Ain.
In their three games, the two-time defending champions have called on Ibrahim Diaky, Brosque, Mohammed Ahmed, Sultan Al Ghaferi, Hazza Salem, Abdul Salaam Mohammed and Yousuf Ahmed as substitutes.
While they are all quality players, the larger turnout of subs would suggest a team in flux and the two defeats in three league games seems to back that up.
Quique Sanchez Flores’s arrival should improve things at the defending champions, but Ahli have made a head start and the quality on their bench should keep them ahead in the title race.
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