x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Al Shabab can shake things up in Arabian Gulf League next season

Marcos Paqueta has a settled and experienced squad at his disposal, ready to pounce if Al Ain, Al Ahli and Al Jazira make mistakes.

Al Shabab coach Marcos Paqueta.
Al Shabab coach Marcos Paqueta.

It will go to Al Ain, or Al Ahli. At a stretch, Al Jazira might just pull off a surprise. And that's that. Few supporters across the 14-team Arabian Gulf League can see the inaugural title in the re-branded league ending up elsewhere.

The country's top three teams have hogged headlines all summer. Reigning champions Al Ain lost coach Cosmin Olaroiu to their bitter rivals at Al Ahli, and after being linked with a host of names, finally replaced him with the Uruguayan Jorge Fossati.

Both clubs have also strengthened their squads.

There have been big changes, too, at Al Jazira, where Luis Milla has lost captain Ibrahim Diaky to Al Ain, and brought in Nelson Valdez and Abdulaziz Barrada from Valencia and Getafe, respectively.

If there's any encouragement for the rest of league, it will come from the instability these changes will inevitably bring. Can anyone take advantage? Last season, surprise package Baniyas almost managed.

If stability and continuity matter, then last season's fifth-place team, Al Shabab, look like this season's dark horse. Champions as recently as 2008; Etisalat Cup winners in 2011; third place and Asian Champions League qualification in 2012; and President's Cup finalists last season, not to mention being the only UAE representative to qualify to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

Most importantly, they have held onto their coach, the Brazilian Marcos Paqueta, despite interest from abroad.

In fact, Shabab are one of two teams who will start this season with same coach from last year.

Last season, Paqueta relied heavily on the Brazilian trio of Edgar Bruno, Ciel and Luiz Henrique, and the excellent Uzbekistan international, Azizbek Haydarov. While Luis Henrique has been replaced as the fourth foreign player in the squad by the returning Chilean Carlos Villanueva, the rest of the squad will have a familiar look.

For the fans, this will bring a mix of encouragement and dread.

There was no better example of Shabab's strengths and weaknesses than May's dramatic 4-3 loss to Al Ahli in the President's Cup final.

Two-goal hero Bruno was at times unplayable, consistently towering over Al Ahli's defence.

Having gone two goals down, Shabab abandoned any notions of a precise, methodical build-up in favour of an all-out aerial assault.

Cross after cross landed on the Brazilian's head, and one of them resulted in the goal that sparked a heroic comeback.

Shabab's pressing game also allowed Luiz Henrique and, in particular, Ciel to push back an Al Ahli midfield itself brilliantly conducted by Chilean playmaker Luis Jimenez.

The onslaught almost worked.

Having surrendered four goals, it would seem obvious where Shabab's problems lay that night, or throughout the season, for that matter.

Except it is not as simple as pointing the finger at a leaky defence.

The 37 goals conceded in the league were only two more than fourth-place Baniyas and third-place Al Jazira.

At the same time, the 48 goals scored by Bruno and company indicates that the attack was not always as prolific as that cup final performance suggests.

It was a similar story in the Champions League. At home against Esteghlal in the first knockout stage, Shabab led by a goal at half-time. In the second half, the difference in class was clear; the Iranian Champions sealed a comfortable 4-2 win, rendering the return leg in Tehran a formality.

Still, Shabab can take a lot of encouragement from the campaign, both at home and on the continent.

With the core of the team still in place, they can at least overtake Baniyas, and will be hoping to take advantage of any slip-ups by Al Ain, Ahli and Jazira.

Paqueta may not have made any major signings this summer, but neither has he, with the exception of Luis Henrique, lost any of his main stars.

Such rare stability should translate into improvement and belief that they can compete with the big boys. It was a task that proved tantalisingly out of reach for Baniyas last season.

The Abu Dhabi club often seemed to lack the conviction that they can make that leap, even when they had Al Ain looking over their shoulder.

A 4-1 thrashing at home to Al Ahli on April 15 finally ended any hopes of a title challenge.

Al Shabab's performance in the cup competitions showed they do not suffer from an inferiority complex. Now they must prove they can do it over 26 league matches.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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