x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Asamoah Gyan is Al Ain's goal guarantor

As the Pro League heads into an extended break John McAuley reviews the best and worst of the first half of the season.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec 16 2012, Al-Maktoum Stadium Dubai, Al nasr v Al Ain- and Al Ain's#3 Asamoah Gyan celebrates his goal at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Mike Young / The National?
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec 16 2012, Al-Maktoum Stadium Dubai, Al nasr v Al Ain- and Al Ain's#3 Asamoah Gyan celebrates his goal at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Mike Young / The National?

As the Pro League heads into an extended break John McAuley reviews the best and worst of the first half of the season.


Worst position: managers

Much of the criticism the UAE top flight garners tends to centre on its gaffe-prone goalkeepers or dodgy defenders.

Footballs are routinely flapped at, fresh air is frequently kicked and penalty kicks often gifted.

However, there remains little doubt that all those custodians and culprits would never, ever swap roles with their coaches.

To say Pro League managers lead a less than charmed life is like labelling Walter Zenga, Al Nasr's fiery tactician, a tad intimidating.

Luckily Zenga should have no such fears as he represents one of the league's most accomplished coaches, yet he is sure to be dismayed by the continual trend affecting his counterparts.

You see, when the going gets even fractionally tough, club boards are inclined to reactions best described as excessively knee-jerk.

This week saw Sergio Alexandre, the Al Shaab coach, become the fifth managerial casualty of the season; Kalba are on to their third coach already. Unfortunately, this is a fashion, not a fad.

Best buy: Asamoah Gyan

OK, so this is cheating slightly. The Ghanaian forward had, of course, already spent a prolific period of adaptation with Al Ain, having rocked up last season at the Garden City club on a year-long loan from the English Premier League side Sunderland. Gyan quickly set about doing what he does best: firing his new team to the title with 22 goals in 22 league matches and in the process collecting a shiny new golden boot.

Al Ain promptly convinced their star striker this summer to sign on the dotted line in a four-year deal. Bit of a risk, don't you think, considering the division's defenders would be wise to Gyan's wily ways. Surely they would not fall for the same old tricks?

Evidently not. The 27 year old has scored 21 already this term - in only 13 matches - as Al Ain have opened a seven-point gap at the top. Money well spent.

Worst buy: Eric Mouloungui

Perhaps a touch unfair, but then football can be a cruel game.

That is certainly what Al Wahda must be feeling, having presumably spent a significant chunk of their summer transfer budget on recruiting Mouloungui from Nice, the French Ligue 1 club.

Admittedly, the Gabon frontman arrived at the Al Nahyan Stadium on a free transfer, signing a two-year contract, but it is no stretch of the imagination to believe he pockets a rather healthy salary, especially when Mouloungui was reportedly on the radar of Sam Allardyce, the current coach of England's West Ham United.

In fact, so desperate were Wahda to sign the 28 year old that the Abu Dhabi club snapped him up way back in May.

However, disaster struck in pre-season when he badly injured his ankle, ruling him out for the entire first half of the season. Marcelo Oliveira, his last-minute replacement, has managed only three goals in 13 games. Thank goodness for his in-form strike partner Papa Waigo.

Best drama: play-offs

More than a few eyebrows were raised when the league announced a four-team round robin to decide the final spots in its freshly devised 14-club division.

Emirates and Sharjah, by finishing as the bottom two last season, were offered a brief reprieve, contesting the play-offs alongside Al Shaab and Al Dhafra, the third and fourth-placed sides from the previous Division One campaign.

The new format sparked a frenetic summer signings spree, but at least it would be pretty straightforward.

However, its Byzantine design confused many, including Dzemal Hadziabdic, the Dhafra coach who praised his players for "qualifying" following an opening two victories. Only thing was, after much agonising over abacuses, it transpired all four teams went into the last round with a chance of "promotion".

The final fixtures threw up various scenarios during frantic final minutes, although in the end it was Shaab and Dhafra who prevailed.

The play-offs had provided as many plot twists as an entire season of Homeland.

Worst affliction: diving

One of the more regrettable by-products of poor attendances is that, whenever a player goes down under a seemingly routine challenge, you can generally hear their screams pierce the sky.

The jolting shriek is usually succeeded by a period of rolling across the pitch and clutching whatever part of the body may have anticipated contact (if no clue, the face generally suffices).

Then on comes the golf buggy and said player is slowly, carefully, transported to the sidelines.

Another consequence of the empty stands is the obvious, collective sigh as the perpetrator makes an amazing recovery. Must be something in those magic sponges.

As comical as it can be, though, diving - attempting to gain an unfair advantage - constitutes brazen cheating.

And when a penalty kick is the reward, the sense of disgust is only heightened. The league must clamp down on such behaviour, or the integrity of its football will forever be subject to criticism.

Best celebration: Al Wasl

It is perhaps fitting that the worst news of the 2012/13 campaign would bring its best reaction.

The sad announcement in October that Bruno Metsu, the Al Wasl coach, was to be relieved of his duties so that he could battle serious illness struck a chord with the entire league.

Fellow managers and past players offered words of comfort, while the club promised to provide the Frenchman with the finest medical care.

His charges, having began the season well, understandably struggled to come to terms with the situation, Mariano Donda, Wasl's integral midfielder, telling The National last month, "we are with him always, in the stadium or the changing room".

Such support was evident in October's home match with Al Dhafra when Shikabala, a recent Metsu acquisition, celebrated opening the scoring by leading his teammates over the hoardings and towards a giant poster of their stricken manager.

A moment of real class from the talented Egyptian.

Worst stage fright: Al Ahli

Failing to perform on home turf is not an alien concept in sport.

The Chicago Cubs long rued the banishing of that billy goat from their Wrigley Field, and Britons have always found it doubly difficult to prosper on the summer lawns of the All England Club. And do not forget Fabio Capello started at Wembley Stadium.

Quique Sanchez Flores, Capello's contemporary at Al Ahli, must understand the frustration all too well.

His side have been away-day experts this season, thrashing the champions Al Ain 6-3 on the opening day, before collecting on their travels another four victories and a draw. The only problem is, as ruthless as they are outside of the Rashid Stadium, they have been rubbish in it.

Saturday's last-minute slip up against Dhafra means Ahli have taken only 11 points there from a possible 21, when an increase on that tally would have seen them challenge Al Ain at the summit. So much for home comforts.



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