x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

As Al Jazira cruise at top, who will drop from the Pro League?

At the bottom of the table, Al Dhafra, Kalba and Al Ain are fighting to avoid the two relegation slots, and nothing like the prospect of drop helps a side focus on the here and now.

The excellence of Al Jazira may soon end what small bit of drama remains at the top of the 2010/11 Pro League race. The Abu Dhabi side could clinch their first league championship as soon as their next outing, on May 16, if they win at Al Wasl and Baniyas lose at home to Dubai.

It is fair to ask what, then, the 12 Pro League sides have to play for over the final five rounds. As it happens, they all have something to which they can aspire.

At the bottom of the table, Al Dhafra, Kalba and Al Ain are fighting to avoid the two relegation slots, and nothing like the prospect of drop helps a side focus on the here and now.

For three seasons, Dhafra have skirted relegation with the skill of mountain goats, finishing 10th, eighth and ninth. They find themselves at the foot of the table, but have three home matches left, including one with Al Ain.

Kalba have improved sharply under the Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, and they have three home games left, including one with Al Ain, and are away to Dubai.

Al Ain have never been relegated, they have a game in hand and the nine-time champions would seem too big to fail. But their fixture list could pose enormous problems to their Pro League survival.

The Etisalat Cup final tomorrow is the second of an astonishing seven matches in 27 days, which includes two Asian Champions League matches. No Pro League side is built to handle this sort of fixture crush. The crucial moments to their league hopes: away to Al Ahli on May 8, away to Dhafra on May 16, home to Wasl on May 20. They may need every point they can get.

The promoted side Dubai are on 20 points and moving close to safety, but if Al Ain regain their form and if Dubai lose to Kalba on June 3, they will be dragged back into the relegation fight.

Ahli have a game in hand, and if they can win, say, 12 points from 18 they could still finish in the upper half.

Not what a club that started the season with Fabio Cannavaro and David O'Leary expected, back in August, but finishing eighth again would be a disappointment.

Al Nasr are on 22 points, like Ahli, but have one less game to play. Nasr have never been out of the top flight, but a slump now, combined with surges by Al Ain and Kalba, could leave the nation's oldest club with a nightmarish season-ender: away to Kalba, on June 9, with relegation potentially awaiting the loser.

With six clubs below them, Al Wahda and Sharjah seem clear of the relegation zone, and each can aspire to a top-four finish and a place in the 2012 Asian Champions League. The jobs of their coaches, the Austrian Josef Hickersberger and the Portuguese Manuel Cajuda, also could be stake.

Wahda's task is a bit more difficult because they are still playing for a berth in this year's ACL knockout phase, which means two extra fixtures in early May for a club who have looked exhausted since December.

Wasl and Al Shabab will play in the ACL next year if they can hold their current positions. Whoever finishes third will escape having to qualify for group play. This matters, because Al Ain this year had to make a long trip to Indonesia in February to qualify for the group phase, and a berth in an east Asia group means three more long journeys.

Baniyas want to finish strongly to show that their early surge was no fluke, to secure an ACL berth and to establish themselves as championship contenders in 2011/12. A rising side with an elite striker, in Andre Senghor, but they have won only one of their past seven league games.

Jazira no doubt will not talk about this before that elusive first championship is secured, but they are five games away from the first unbeaten season in UAE top-flight history.

A campaign that yields a President's Cup/league double, as well as an unprecedented undefeated league record could mark this Jazira team the greatest in UAE history. Worth playing for, surely.