x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Second half of Pro League is shaping up nicely

Al Jazira, who have a habit of faltering in the second half of the season after a blistering start to it, hope to finally end a run of three successive third-place finishes in the Pro League.

The most compelling storylines as the second half of the Pro League season begins tonight are found at opposite ends of the table.

At the top: can Al Jazira finally win that elusive first championship after 37 years and three consecutive near-misses?

At the bottom: is it really possible that Al Ain, a perennial contender and a former Asian Champions League title-winner, could be relegated?

This season has been about Jazira from the first weekend, even with Fabio Cannavaro making his debut for Al Ahli.

A year ago, Jazira lost only once in 22 Pro League matches but were overcome in the final months as Al Wahda surged behind their striker Fernando Baiano, whom Jazira had allowed to escape to their Abu Dhabi rivals, and by a series of crushing draws - at home to Al Dhafra and Sharjah, away to Baniyas.

This season had a Last Best Chance feel to it from the start: the Brazilian coach Abel Braga in the third and final year of his contract; Ibrahim Diaky and Subait Khater approaching their golden years; the club trying out Bare, yet another bulky Brazilian striker, as their target man up top.

So far, Jazira have handled expectations with grim consistency: they are unbeaten in 11 games. Their home ground, the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, has been a citadel; four victories and a draw in five matches, and only one goal conceded. But the club have taken care of business away, too, winning five and drawing one.

Their 29-8 bulge in goals scored over goals conceded speaks to the overall quality of the side, and particularly that of Ali Kasheif, the goalkeeper.

The dark fear here is the club's recent history of fading in the second half of the season, and tonight's match, away to Walter Zenga's Al Nasr, could be telling.

The upstart side Baniyas are best-placed to track down Jazira, only five points in arrears and with a home match against them still to play on April 15. Baniyas, in the second division just two years ago, have two important assets: the striker Andre Senghor, the league's leading scorer with 12 goals, and the gifted young playmaker Amer Abdulrahman, probably the UAE's top performer at the Asian Cup last month.

Like Jazira, Baniyas have never won a top-flight championship. But with instability in goal and a sense of "not quite ready" about them, a look at the leaders of the chasing pack is useful.

Most prominent, though 12 points back, are Ahli, who seem to be gaining momentum under their Irish coach, David O'Leary, and behind the attacking skills of Pinga. Ahli also have a game in hand, albeit away to Wahda. Also a dozen points back are Al Wasl, who boast the Spanish midfielder Francisco Yeste, the top new foreign player this season.

Wahda, reinvigorated under the Austrian coach Josef Hickersberger, are 14 points further back, seemingly too far behind to trouble Jazira, but Braga probably will not rest easy until his Abu Dhabi rivals are eliminated.

At the other end, the shock is Al Ain, the nine-time champions hovering two points above the two-team relegation zone.

The club made sweeping changes in the past month, bringing in the coach Alexandre Gallo and the forward Elias Ribeiro, both of Brazil, and the Chilean midfielder Milovan Mirosevic, while loaning the Argentina striker Jose Sand to Deportivo La Coruna.

They would seem to possess sufficient quality to fend off Dubai, but they leaked three goals to the promoted side in a 4-3 home victory back in August, and they play away to the same club tonight.

Defeat would send Al Ain into the drop zone, a point behind Dubai, and set off something close to football panic in the Garden City.

The second half should be fascinating, particularly at the top and the bottom.