x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Al Ahli’s march in Arabian Gulf League is not given, yet

The Arabian Gulf League leaders' winning run has been halted but is that enough for other clubs to raise their hopes. Ahmed Rizvi analyses the quarter of the season gone by.

Grafite, left, and his Al Ahli teammates have been on a winning run until the last game against Sharjah when they dropped points. Satish Kumar / The National
Grafite, left, and his Al Ahli teammates have been on a winning run until the last game against Sharjah when they dropped points. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // A solid start for Al Ahli may not necessarily mean a one-sided affair in the league and Ahmed Rizvi points out a few grey areas

The Arabian Gulf League’s chasing pack must have finally heaved a sigh of relief.

After watching Al Ahli’s blazing start, with seven wins from their first seven games, they must have been tempted to repeat Walter Zenga’s line from a season ago when he said that only a “traffic light” could prevent Al Ain from running away with the league.

Last Friday, however, Sharjah gave them some hope with a battling performance to bring Ahli’s winning start to an end.

The leaders had a six-point lead at the top until then and, while they are still ahead by four after the 1-1 draw, the difference now looks a lot more chaseable.

And then, there is still a long way to the finish line. But a word of caution here.

None of the champions of the past the past dozen seasons have enjoyed as good a start in the league as Ahli’s current campaign.

The last title winners to drop only two points after eight weeks were Al Wahda in 2000/01 and they went on to finish five points clear of Ahli.

Last season, Al Ain had dropped five points by this stage and yet they finished with a comfortable nine-point lead. The lowest total after eight games was Al Wasl’s 16 points in 2006/07.So, if history is any indication, the likes of Al Shabab, Baniyas, Sharjah and Al Ain are facing an uphill battle.

But, as most managers are so fond of saying, history matters little on the pitch. Nothing can be taken for granted and Shabab’s season until now is proof of that.

When the pundits were making their predictions before the start of the season, not many, if any, had fancied the chances of Shabab, a club with limited resources and one of the smallest fan bases among the top-flight clubs.

And to the dismay of those limited fans, the club management decided to cash-in on their two best players of 2012/13 – Walid Abbas and Ciel.

Yet, they are second in the table and they could have been in an even better position, if not for the surprising 2-1 loss at Al Shaab.

The Brazilian pair of Edgar Bruno, who has scored six goals in the last two matches, and Adeilson have made sure Ciel’s absence is not felt, while the return of Carlos Villanueva brings class and experience to their midfield and lessened the burden on the hard-working Azizbek Haydarov.

Marcos Paqueta, the manager, has also not been shy of blooding youngsters and they have delivered.

Paqueta is now hoping his team can stay close to the leaders and finish the first-half of the season in second place.

“The difference in points between the teams is not great and there is still a long way to go,” he said.

“A lot of the team are missing some important players because of injuries and when they are back at full strength, the competition for the top spots will only intensify.”

Wahda have suffered the most in the injury stakes and last week, new manager Jose Peseiro lamented the absence of six important players.

Baniyas have also been missing some key players, including Amer Abdulrahman, who underwent a cruciate ligament surgery in Italy last week.

Even without their talented playmaker, Baniyas have shown themselves to be a dangerous unit with new arrivals Carlos Munoz and Luis Farina proving to be a formidable duo upfront.

With Quique Sanchez Flores in charge, Al Ain have also been on the mend and their match against Baniyas tomorrow could be a great indicator about the two teams moving forward.

“The levels of the top teams seems to be very close, so it is very difficult to talk about the title now,” said the Baniyas coach Jorge da Silva. “Perhaps, we will have a clearer picture in the second half of the season.”

With only 10 points separating the top eight, the race is indeed too close to predict. Only two points separate six teams behind Ahli and Shabab and many of them will be looking strengthen their squads in January transfer window.

Wasl have already been linked with the likes of Ronaldinho and Victor Simoes, and if those rumours were to come true, the second half of the league could be an intriguing affair as well.

So the best start in a dozen years might not be enough. Ahli will have to keep moving at full steam, and they might still be looking over their shoulders until the finish line.

arizvi@thenational.ae

Key games in the coming weeks

Tomorrow

Baniyas v Al Ain

Big winners in the last round, both Baniyas (beat Al Shaab 4-0) and Al Ain (beat Emirates 5-3) are full of confidence, but this game could define their challenge for the title.

Tomorrow

Al Ahli v Al Jazira

Held to a 1-1 draw by Sharjah in the last round, Ahli will be looking for three points to keep their lead intact, especially if Al Shabab win at Al Wahda today.

Saturday, December 14

Al Shabab v Al Nasr

A potential banana skin for Shabab as Nasr have shown themselves to be dangerous with victories over Baniyas and Al Jazira until now.

Sunday, December 15

Sharjah v Baniyas

Another crucial game for Baniyas as they try to finish among the top three in the first half. Sharjah very capable of spoiling their chances.

Friday, December 20

Al Ahli vs Al Shabab

If both teams can keep their place at the top of the table until the 11th round, then this has the potential to be the biggest game of the season.

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