x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Al Ain look favourites for Arabian Gulf League title again

With the arrivals of new coach Jorge Fossati and forward Michel Bastos, Al Ain suddenly look like the team to beat in UAE club football once again.

Michel Bastos will have a medical on Friday. Juergen Schwarz / Getty Images
Michel Bastos will have a medical on Friday. Juergen Schwarz / Getty Images

What a difference a week makes, eh? Cast the mind back to the not-too-distant past and Al Ain were supposed to be in a right funk. Successive UAE champions, yes, but they had lost the architect of their domestic dominance to the side who spent much of 2012/13 taking residence firmly under their skin.

While coach Cosmin Olaroiu was busy putting his new Al Ahli charges through their paces, Al Ain were struggling to find his replacement.

What's more, their No 1 target, Abel Braga, was publicly committing his future to Fluminense, even though the Brazilian club, as it turns out, were privately preparing for a future without him.

Al Ain's anxieties were laid bare by Mohammed Obaid Hammad, the first-team manager, who conceded the whole episode was unsettling the players' pre-season.

Then in two rather hefty blows, it all seems rosy in the Garden City again. First, Jorge Fossati, an Asian Champions League-winning manager, no less, was installed as coach, swiftly followed by news that Michel Bastos was hotfooting it to Al Ain, too.

The Brazilian, expected to complete a medical exam today and thus confirm his €4 million (Dh19.5m) transfer from Lyon, represents the Arabian Gulf League's starriest signing in a summer of full-beam-bright investment.

Almost 200 matches in Ligue 1, nearly 30 in the Uefa Champions League, considered among the best 23 players in Brazil around the last Fifa World Cup and, crucially, at 29 widely considered the peak period in the life of a footballer.

His recruitment is a clear signal of intent from Al Ain. Yes, each of their rivals have strengthened considerably, but consider this: Al Ain were easily the finest side in last season's Pro League and since have acquired Ibrahim Diaky, the experienced Ivorian who qualifies as a local, and Khalid Essa, deemed a national-team-quality goalkeeper.

Granted, Diaky had stagnated at Al Jazira, but Al Ain sources suggest a career spurt, saying he has already struck an encouraging relationship in training with Asamoah Gyan.

So two perceived problem areas – central midfield and between the posts – have found mends. Assuming Jires Kembo Ekoko is the one squeezed out by Bastos, then a foreign quartet of Gyan, Alex Brosque, Mirel Radoi and Bastos can claim to be the most accomplished in the division.

Any need to mention Omar Abdulrahman, or Al Ain's promising pool of youth-team talent?

OK, pre-season has taken a while to properly get into gear, yet Al Ain say it could even serve them well in the long-run.

Olaroiu may be gone, and there is no guarantee Fossati will prosper, but in the past seven days, Al Ain have quashed the declaration that Ahli are the new champions elect. It just took a little time.


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