Al Ahli and Al Jazira are both set to contend with two-time defending champions but no clashes scheduled between the teams until seventh week, writes Ahmed Rizvi.
Al Ahli's Grafite says Al Ain won't be lonely at top of Arabian Gulf League
DUBAI // Grafite, winner of the Arabian Gulf League's top International Player award last season, has picked his team, Al Ahli, and Abu Dhabi giants Al Jazira as the teams best-positioned to thwart Al Ain's quest for a third successive title.
Al Ain have dominated the competition over the past two seasons, winning the title with almost four rounds to spare on both occasions.
In 2011/12, they finished 14 points ahead of runners-up Al Nasr, and last season, Ahli ended the season 11 points behind the champions.
But with Cosmin Olaroiu, Al Ain's coach over the past two seasons, moving to Ahli over the summer, and Jazira bringing in Nelson Valdez and Abdulaziz Barrada, Grafite expects the next season to be a lot closer in the league.
"I think it will be really strong competition this year," said the Ahli striker. "I have been following the transfers and some really good players have come here, especially some very good strikers. The players from last year will also be trying to improve on their performance from last season.
"Some really good coaches have also come this season. Cosmin is with us and Al Nasr have a new coach. Al Sharjah have come back to the top division and they also have a new coach.
"So you can't say what will happen, but if you look on paper, Al Ain, Al Ahli and Al Jazira are the three biggest teams. But then, football is played inside the field and you cannot predict anything."
Al Ain will start their defence at home against Al Shabab, with exact dates and kick-off times still to be confirmed by the league, while Ahli will host Dubai in the opening week, as Al Jazira opens at home against Al Shaab.
None of the three big guns will not meet till the seventh week, when Al Ain host Ahli, while Jazira will travel to Al Ain in the 12th week.
"I believe this season, we are going to see great competition between all the teams because all the clubs have made some really good changes in coaching and foreign players," said Mohammed Atiq Al Hamli, a member of the Al Jazira board.
"As for us, our main goal will be to compete for titles in every competition and I look forward to seeing our players doing their best help achieve the club's ambitions."
Last season, Al Ain started their league campaign with a stunning 6-3 loss at home to Al Ahli, but Obaid Hubaitha, the Shabab team manager, is realistic about his side's chances of repeating when they take to the field against the champions.
"The 6-3 defeat was a lesson for them," Hubaitha said. "I don't think you can surprise them this way again, not in this match, not even in 10 years. No, Al Ain are a very strong team.
"The [Shabab] players will know they will be up for a big challenge, because any team playing against Al Ain will be playing against the champions. So I think they will keep that in mind and will be 200 per cent ready. They [Al Ain] will also want to make a good start like us. So let's wait and see."
"We were hoping to get a bit of an easier game. When you start the season, normally you are not 100 per cent ready, especially in the first two or three matches. You gradually get into the rhythm and start performing better. But we have a match and we have to do our best."
"Everybody in Sharjah city is really happy to see us back in the professional league," said Ahmed Mubarak, the Sharjah team manager. "We will go step by step, match by match. I am not saying we are where we would like to be, but hopefully, we will have a better seasons than the ones we had in the last two years."
Meanwhile Abdullah Al Naboodah, chairman of Ahli's board of directors, has dismissed media reports linking his club with a move for Brazilian winger Michel Bastos, who spent the last six months at German club Schalke, on loan from Lyon.
"There were some reports linking Al Ahli with Michel Bastos, but we are not looking for that position," Al Naboodah said. "Michel Bastos plays in an offensive position and Al Ahli is looking for a defender.
"Our shortlist is becoming very small now and I think in the next few days we will have something on the table."
Arabian Gulf League early fixtures
Al Ahli v Dubai
Al Ain v Al Shabab
Al Jazira v Al Shaab
Al Nasr v Al Wahda
Baniyas v Ajman
Emirates v Al Dhafra
Sharjah v Al Wasl
Al Dhafra v Baniyas
Al Shaab v Al Nasr
Al Shabab v Sharjah
Al Wahda v Al Ahli
Al Wasl v Al Jazira
Ajman v Al Ain
Dubai v Emirates
Al Ahli v Al Nasr
Al Ain v Al Dhafra
Al Jazira v Al Shabab
Al Wasl v Al Shaab
Baniyas v Dubai
Emirates v Al Wahda
Sharjah v Ajman
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