x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Maradona is not the only story in the Pro League drama

There has been more to the Pro League season then simply Diego Maradona's tenure as Al Wasl coach, writes Paul Oberjuerge

Diego Maradona and Al Ain were the biggest stories of the Pro League's first half.

As expected, Maradona set a UAE record for "most attention received, sportsman", but the return of Al Ain to the top was a surprise, given that Al Jazira, the champions, returned with nearly the whole of their title-winning team.

Maradona was a one-man 24-hour news cycle. Like a great Shakespearean actor (with that magnificent beard, think King Lear), he exhibited the full range of human emotions while his Al Wasl side sank into irrelevance in the title chase.

Al Ain remain unbeaten, 11 matches in to the 22-match schedule, which would not have seemed odd four or five years ago. But the club flirted with relegation just eight months ago, and for them to be riding high shows the possibility of rebuilding on the fly. And how the addition of an English Premier League striker in his prime can change your fortunes. Asamoah Gyan, on loan from Sunderland, leads the league with 10 goals.

Al Jazira may be hitting their stride. If they can tighten up at the back - and their first-choice goalkeeper Ali Kasheif could be back soon - they might be able to overhaul Al Ain, who will not have Gyan while he is off at the African Cup of Nations.

Al Nasr warrant watching, too. They are a side who are greater than their constituent parts, which prompts us to look at the coach, Walter Zenga, to explain why they are only two points behind Jazira and six adrift of Al Ain. If Nasr can stage an upset of the front-runners on Monday, they can aspire to their first league title since 1986.

The most disappointing sides in the league are those coached by the most prominent coaches - Maradona's Wasl and Quique Sanchez Flores's Al Ahli. Each club made some dreadful and expensive decisions to fill expatriate slots, and coaches with global reputations have not been able to overcome them. Maradona essentially ripped up his team, after dropping 13 points in five league games, and whether the new boys Mohammed Reza Khalatbari and Juan Igancio Mercier can help Wasl turn on the coach's "hug machine" has yet to be seen.

The relegation battle appears to be a three-cornered affair involving Emirates, Dubai and Sharjah.

The former duo meet on Sunday, and a Dubai victory would doom Emirates and move Dubai level with Sharjah, at least for 24 hours.

The first half has been remarkable for an even more extreme dependence on foreigners to score goals. At the halfway point a year ago, foreign players had accounted for 50.2 per cent of goals. This year it is up to a staggering 66.2 per cent - 143 of 216. The addition of the fourth, "Asian" foreigner explains some of it, but the scoring woes of prominent Emiratis in attacking positions (such as Ibrahim Diaky, Ismail Matar, Ahmed Khalil) is a factor, too.

The top 17 scorers in the league, those with four goals or more, are foreigners.

Five Emiratis have three goals and, curiously, only one is a forward, Al Ain's Mohammed Naser. None of this bodes well for the goal-starved UAE national sides.

We propose two first XIs for the first half of the league, one including expatriates and one without.

The overall first XI (3-5-2): Wahid Salem (Al Ain); Mohammed Shaibah (Al Wahda), Yousuf Jabar (Baniyas), Lucas Neill (Jazira); Mariano Donda (Wasl), Mark Bresciano (Nasr), Karim Kerkar (Ajman), Ciel (Al Shabab), Ignacio Scocco (Al Ain); Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), Ricardo Oliveira (Jazira).

The Emirati first XI (4-4-2): Salem; Mohammed Fawzi (Baniyas), Fares Juma (Al Ain), Juma Abdullah (Jazira), Jabar; Amer Abdulrahman (Baniyas), Khaled Jalal (Wahda), Ismail Al Hammadi (Ahli), Ahmed Darwish (Wasl); Ismail Matar (Wahda), Ahmed Kahlil (Ahli).