x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Blueprint to Al Ahli’s success down to five points

Following Ahli's clinching of the Arabian Gulf League title last Thursday, with three games to spare, John McAuley identifies five key areas that helped the Dubai club to the championship.

Cosmin Olaroiu, right, was only one of the reasons Al Ahli was celebrating an Arabian Gulf League title on April 10, 2014. Retaining Grafite and signing Walid Abbas and Ciel are two more reasons. Sarah Dea / The National
Cosmin Olaroiu, right, was only one of the reasons Al Ahli was celebrating an Arabian Gulf League title on April 10, 2014. Retaining Grafite and signing Walid Abbas and Ciel are two more reasons. Sarah Dea / The National

Managerial master

Cosmin Olaroiu is so good they should let him keep the trophy.

Three successive top-flight titles is unprecedented for a coach in the capricious environs of the UAE’s premier division and his undoubted expertise was exactly what last summer convinced Al Ahli that he represented the missing piece in their title jigsaw.

Given the backdrop to the season that followed his acrimonious departure from Al Ain, the club he lifted to double league champions, this could be his greatest achievement.

Olaroiu has endured more away from the pitch then he could have ever imagined, but he has stuck to the task and managed to chisel a team into serial winners. His touchline ban even failed to derail Ahli’s title challenge. Olaroiu remained resolutely on track to become a history maker.

Remember, Ahli seem set for a season of unparalleled success. Ask any player about their current boon and they will place it firmly at Olaroiu’s door.


Striking it rich

Towards the tail end of last season, Ahli faced a dilemma: retain Grafite, their captain and prolific forward, beyond his soon-to-expire contract, or seek fresh blood to spearhead their new championship challenge.

In truth, the solution was obvious.

Despite his pending 34th birthday, the Brazilian’s goal-scoring record throughout two seasons had been bettered only by Asamoah Gyan, at Al Ain. What’s more, analysis of Grafite’s performances highlighted how he was in no way on the wane. The former Wolfsburg striker was one of Ahli’s hardest-working players and the club promptly offered him a one-year extension.

New deal signed, Grafite has continued to repay their faith. He has 18 league goals and it was fitting that his most recent, against Al Wasl on Thursday, helped seal the championship.

A year older, Ahli find themselves again at a crossroads regarding their tireless captain. Grafite’s persistent prosperity should see him retained.


Astute acquisitions

If Olaroiu’s recruitment put the wheels to a title-winning run in motion, then the careful caressing of the squad last summer filled the tank with five-star fuel. The double signing of Ciel and Walid Abbas surprised, but it was rooted in logic.

Ahli required a plug at the back and a spark up front and, in the Al Shabab duo, they got just that. Abbas, the experienced Emirati, is perhaps the UAE’s most dependable defender, as Marcos Paqueta, the Shabab coach, lamented upon his departure.

Meanwhile, the mercurial Ciel offers goals and guile from the left flank and his presence has allowed Ismail Al Hammadi freedom to flourish on the right. Humaid Abbas, together with Ahmed Mahmoud and Thamer Mohammed in January, have bolstered the squad, too.

Hugo Viana, though, has been Ahli’s shrewdest acquisition. The club sought a deep-lying playmaker to control matches and, having initially taken a while to settle, the Portuguese has dominated and dictated. With that, Ahli have thrived.


Home comforts

Last season’s second-place finish constituted continued progress, although it was thought Ahli could have pushed Al Ain, the eventful champions, closer. They really should have.

Ahli finished 11 points behind the Garden City club, a gap that would have been significantly narrowed had they not thrown away numerous points at home. At the Rashid Stadium, they struggled against Dubai club and Dibba Al Fujairah, sides at the wrong end of the table.

In all, Ahli won seven of 13 home matches, failing to beat Baniyas, Al Jazira and Al Ain, their title rivals. Jazira and Al Ain departed Dubai with clean sheets and full points.

This season, though, Ahli have been almost flawless. The one registered defeat, a 3-0 reverse to Al Dhafra, resulted from Adnan Hussain’s late introduction as substitute; suspended from playing, the Football Association quickly retracted Ahli’s 3-1 victory. Yet it mattered little, as Ahli gleaned 31 points from a possible 36 at home. They have become the division’s least hospitable hosts.


Support structure

Amid the frenzied celebrations of last Thursday, Abdullah Al Naboodah wore a smile as wide as the gap separating his side from Al Shabab, Ahli’s closest competitors in the standings.

The chairman, installed in 2010 to help steer the club to the summit of UAE football, has spent four years steadily building behind the scenes. Roy Aitken, the experienced Scot, was appointed as director of football, while Ahli introduced a performance analysis department designed to eke out every possible advantage. The results can be viewed in the club’s trophy cabinet, with the Etisalat Cup and President’s Cup, captured during the past two seasons, making room for the Arabian Gulf League title. There is likely to be more: Ahli have two domestic cup finals on the horizon.

The club board have made a discernible effort to establish Ahli as the country’s strongest, both off and on the pitch. The former has facilitated the latter.


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