x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Pro League play-offs may have a big pay-off

'Too much team' for Division One remains a risk, but the four clubs seem to have embraced the realities of an unusual situation, leading to unintended consequences. Paul Oberjuerge breaks it down.

Mohammad Qassim of Al Ahli consoles Sharjah's Mohamed Sroor after the latter's 2-1 loss placed them in relegation. The play-off to play into the Pro League has given Sharjah a second chance to stay up.
Mohammad Qassim of Al Ahli consoles Sharjah's Mohamed Sroor after the latter's 2-1 loss placed them in relegation. The play-off to play into the Pro League has given Sharjah a second chance to stay up.

Unintended consequences occasionally yield positive outcomes. Or interesting outcomes, at least. Such is the case with the Pro League's promotion play-offs.

When the FA revealed plans a month ago for a four-team "mini league" to fill the final two slots in an expanded, 14-club league for 2012/13, the decision seemed late, the fixtures even later and the chances of confusion and frustration high.

We understand how it happened. The FA didn't want to commit to a 14-team league until it had elected new leaders, which occurred in mid-May. Once Yousuf Al Serkal was in place as president, he could take action on his preference for two more teams in the top flight, beginning this fall.

However, with the 2011/12 season only days from completion, it was not clear, then, where those two additional teams would come from.

A decision could have been made to suspend the relegation of Sharjah and Emirates and, voila, 14 teams - once the promoted sides Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah were added. It would have seemed a bit unfair to hand out reprieves, however, and perhaps a bit cynical, given Sharjah's nearly uninterrupted run in the league and the sense that they were "too big to fail".

The FA's solution was the play-off. The Pro League laggards and the third- and fourth-place sides from Division One (Al Shaab and Al Dhafra) would enter the play-off ahead of the 2012/13 season. Each side would play the other three, and the top two in the table would join the top flight, with the bottom two sliding down to Division One.

The pitfalls here were obvious. The play-off would take place from September 4 to September 14, when temperatures remain painfully high for football. And, more significantly for the clubs, they would compete with their 2012/13 sides, and two clubs would quickly end up in a lower division with a squad more expensive than they would want or need.

"Too much team" for Division One remains a risk, but the four clubs seem to have embraced the realities of an unusual situation, leading to those unintended consequences.

First, until at least the January transfer window, the country for the first time will have 16 clubs with most of the trappings of a top-flight team: the 12 already in the league and the four fighting for the two remaining berths.

Second, the aggressive moves by the play-off clubs are leading us towards what is beginning to look like a highly entertaining round of games, come September, a high-stakes appetiser ahead of the next top-flight season.

Consider some of the moves the clubs already have made:

DHAFRA signed Alexandre Oliveira, the Brazilian striker and former Al Wasl favourite, and Makhete Diop, a forward from Senegal, to join Pinga, the Brazilian playmaker. They also have added two former captains of the UAE national side, the defensive midfielder Abdulsalam Jumaa and the defender Mohammed Qassim, and imported five reserves from the champions Al Ain.

EMIRATES brought in German Herrera, an Argentine striker in his prime, signed the impressive Lebanese midfielder Hassan Maatouk away from Ajman and retained Modibo Diarra, a dangerous forward. They also bought Saad Suroor, an experienced Emirati forward, from Al Shabab.

SHAAB secured two more-than-competent attacking players from the half-dozen who rattle around the region at any given moment, the Brazilian Rodrigo Vergilio and the Frenchman Michael N'dri, and those two can score on anyone.

SHARJAH retained the Brazilians Edinho and Marcelo Oliveira, who between them scored 20 league goals last season, and sent the Olympic-team defender Abdulaziz Sanquor to Ahli for no fewer than six Emiratis expected to provide a sharp upgrade in local talent.

Two new coaches have been added, as well: Faouzi Benzarti, a former Tunisia national coach, at Sharjah; Jamal Haji, a Bosnian and the former Qatar national coach, at Dhafra. The holdover coaches, Lufti Benzarti (Faouzi's brother) at Emirates and the Brazilian Sergio at Shaab, have the same brief: "Get the club into the top flight. Period."

This could be enough fun that the FA may want to make a relegation/promotion mini-league a staple, albeit at the end of a season, rather than the start.

Perhaps two clubs relegated, two promoted and the third-bottom club in the Pro League in a three-way play-off with the Nos 3 and 4 clubs from Division One for a place in the top flight. Or some other permutation to add spice to the final weeks of the season.

The coming play-off now seems sure to be highly competitive and highly anticipated.

Who knew?

poberjuerge@thentional.ae

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