x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Baniyas in the hunt for UAE Pro League title minus the hype

Smart acquisitions in the transfer window and not having to compete for any other trophy have contributed to the Abu Dhabi club closing in on Al Ain in the title race

Mohamed Aboutrika celebrates scoring for Baniyas against Al Ain.
Mohamed Aboutrika celebrates scoring for Baniyas against Al Ain.

Almost out of nowhere, Baniyas find themselves as Al Ain's most realistic title challengers.

The Abu Dhabi club do not court the commotion that surrounds Al Jazira or Al Ahli, the teams directly below them in the Pro League table, but Josef Chovanec's team are creating a chaos all of their own.

Sunday's victory at Dibba Al Fujairah, recent conquerors of the champions, made it seven wins in nine league matches, proving Baniyas have become adept at getting the job done.

A sturdy sequence that began with November's 5-0 thrashing of Ajman now includes five successes, enough to lift them to second and to within six points of the summit.

Granted, consecutive defeats during that run to Al Ain and Jazira suggested Baniyas would always struggle against the top teams, but shrewd business during the January transfer window welcomed Mohamed Aboutrika and Christian Wilhelmsson, players of significant high-level experience.

They have already proved their worth. In Amer Abdulrahman and Nick Carle, Baniyas boast a midfield designed to create and combat, while Andre Senghor provides a constant threat. The Senegalese striker currently ranks among the five most prolific goalscorers in the league.

Yet the strength of their squad is not the only reason their unexpected title bid can be sustained. Unlike those around them, Baniyas have no other commitments, having been eliminated from both the Etisalat Cup and President's Cup.

Neither will they be swamped by Asian Champions League obligations; a year ago they advanced from the group stage.

Signs of progress have long been evident.

They were promoted in 2009/10 and finished a surprise fourth, then bettered that with a runners-up campaign in 2010/11.

However, they were a disappointing ninth last season, which could be attributed to distractions elsewhere, as the understated club progressed to the President's Cup final and performed excellently in Asia in their first attempt.

This season, aided by their signings and a free calendar, a quiet Baniyas are mounting an unlikely attempt to steal Al Ain's crown.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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