x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Arabian Gulf League: Blue touch paper has been lit between rivals

In the first of our five-part series, Ahmed Rizvi looks at the two main title contenders: Al Ain and Al Ahli.

Al Ahli's Majed Hassan, left, attempts to tackle Al Ain's Omar Abdulrahman.
Al Ahli's Majed Hassan, left, attempts to tackle Al Ain's Omar Abdulrahman.

Over the past two league campaigns, Al Ain have brooked no resistance, brushing aside their challengers with skill and panache.

Remember that 19-touch goal against Ajman, when every member of the team, including the goalkeeper, got a foot on the ball before Yousuf Ahmed put it into the back of the net?

The video went viral, inviting flattering comparisons with such luminaries as Barcelona.

The Catalan club may be in a different league, literally and figuratively, but Al Ain have matched those high standards in their own realm. They have their own Lionel Messi as well: Omar Abdulrahman, a diminutive man with a gigantic presence on the field.

With Abdulrahman playing Pied Piper in the middle and Asamoah Gyan almost Herculean in front of goal, Al Ain usually have been overwhelming.

They returned to the podium in 2011/12 for the first time since their hat-trick of titles from 2001/02 through 2003/04, finishing 14 points clear of Al Nasr at the top of the league table. At the end of last season, they had a cushion of 11 points at the top.

This season might not be as easy for the incumbents. The Barcelona of the Arabian Gulf League might just find a Real Madrid in their path: Al Ahli.

The smouldering rivalry between the two sides, which started with Ahli's stunning 6-3 win in the Garden City 12 months ago, is a raging fire now.

Al Ain's 2-1 defeat to their rivals in President's Cup semi-finals and the abandoned league game at the Rashid Stadium, when the linesman was injured by an object thrown from the stands, added fuel to the conflagration, but the biggest accelerant was coach Cosmin Olaroiu's switch to the Dubai club in the summer.

Ahli and Olaroiu have won the first battle, the season-opening Super Cup, in a shoot-out, but as both camps warned, this is just the start. "We look forward to winning the war," said the victorious Ahli coach. The Al Ain manager, Jorge Fossati, and his players have heard that roar and will be focused for what promises to be an intense campaign for the ultimate honour - the Arabian Gulf League title.

This rivalry could be a boon for this league and its dwindling numbers at the turnstile. With hostilities set to begin Saturday, the season could be one of the most exciting in recent memory, possibly the greatest title race in the professional era.

Who wins it in the end? Too close to call. The teams, as we discern, are evenly matched.

Goalkeepers and defence

Majed Naser could be a maverick and the perennial bad boy of UAE football, but he has few equals at his job.

Banned following his misdemeanours in the first half of 2012, Naser has redeemed himself since moving to Ahli last summer from Al Wasl and played a starring role in the Super Cup win, saving two penalties.

"When we got to the penalties, I was almost sure we were going to win, because Naser is very good on penalties," Olaroiu said.

Ahli also boast a robust defence with three current UAE internationals - Abdulaziz Haikal, Abdulaziz Sanqour and Walid Abbas - and the veteran Basheer Saeed.

Al Ain have an equally sturdy defence in Mohammed Ahmed, Mohnad Salem, Fares Juma and Ismail Ahmed. In Khalid Essa, who moved to the champions from Al Jazira in the summer, they have one of the best young goalkeepers in the country.

Saif Rashed, Dawoud Sulaiman and Mahmood Al Mas did not fare badly between the Al Ain posts last season - the team conceded only 26 goals in their 26-game league campaign, which was the least for the season. Ahli were next best on 33.

Style of play

The West Indies cricket team had a great fast bowler named Michael Holding, who was known as "Whispering Death".

That title would fit Al Ain.

They do not knock you out like a Mike Tyson, but float like a butterfly, to quote Muhammad Ali, and then sting you like a bee. They tease with crafty touches and total play, before breaking through to goal. That 19-touch goal against Ajman is a perfect illustration of their style of play.

Ahli, on the other hand, come at you like a bull. On their day, they will give you no respite, with the two Abdulazizs – Haikal and Sanqour – launching assaults from the flanks and Ismail Al Hammadi leaving defenders gasping for breath. Majed Hassan can be a nasty enforcer in midfield, as his red card in the Super Cup proves, while Brazilian powerhouse Grafite, more often than not, muscles his way past defences.

Then there is Luis Jimenez sneaking through gaps. Theirs is a more direct style of play.

Foreigners

Since his arrival from Sunderland in 2011, Asamoah Gyan has been a nightmare for UAE defenders, scoring 58 goals in the three domestic competitions.

Not sure why he is called "Baby Jet" - "Tomahawk" would be more apt - given his propensity for destruction. Added to his threat, Al Ain's opponents will have to face another skilled expatriate in Michel Bastos, who has a fierce left foot and can score from impossible angles.

Along with Mirel Radoi and Alex Brosque, you are looking at the best foreign quartet in the land.

Unless you consider Ahli's.

The Dubai side have an enviable array of foreign stars. Grafite (24 goals) may have finished a distant second to Gyan (a league-record 31) on the scorer's roll for last season, but he has scored 40 in just two season in the UAE. He will be looking to win his personal battle with Gyan this time around.

The arrival of the Portuguese Hugo Viana brings experience to the Ahli midfield and Jimenez's Palestinian passport allowed the club to stage one of the biggest coups in recent memory: obtaining Ciel, the Brazilian forward, from Al Shabab.

Man for man, there is little to choose between the two rival brigades.

Emirati contingent

Mahdi Ali, the national team coach, could pick an XI from the Ahli roster alone. Abdulaziz Haikal, Walid Abbas, Abdulaziz Sanqour and Basheer Saeed in defence, with Majed Naser in goal. His midfield could boast the energetic trio of Adnan Hussain, Humaid Abbas and Amer Mubarak, as well as the tough-tackling Majed Hassan.

Ismail Al Hammadi and Ahmed Khalil could be his attacking pair. Each of them has played for the national team. But such are the riches of Ahli, Khalil struggles to find a place in the club's starting XI.

Al Ain probably only offers for certain one name to the national cause: Omar Abdulrahman. He is the Koh-i-Noor diamond in their crown. But there are other formidable Emiratis: goalkeepers Khalid Essa and Dawoud Sulaiman; defenders Mohammed Ahmed, Fares Juma and Mohannad Salem; and midfielders Helal Saeed, Ali Al Wehaibi, Sultan Al Ghaferi and Ahmed Barman.

Coach

When Quique Sanchez Flores decided not to renew his contract with Ahli, several names were mooted as possible replacements.

There were a few whispers about Olaroiu, but not many believed them. Nothing, however, is impossible in the world of professional sports and the Al Ain fans learnt that the hard way.

That said, Ahli fans could not have dreamed of a better replacement for Sanchez Flores than Olaroiu - winner of two consecutive league titles.

Al Ain, perhaps, have also found their own perfect replacement for a departed coach: Jorge Fossati.

The Uruguayan has won league titles in four countries (Uruguay, Ecuador, Qatar and Paraguay), has won three continental club championships (Recopa Sudamericana, Copa Sudamericana and the Asian Champions League) and led the Uruguay national team to a third-place finish at the Copa America in 2004. How many coaches here can boast such a resume?

arizvi@thenational.ae

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