Can Al Jazira embark on a period of domestic dominance?
Al Jazira’s run to the title last season was a triumph in belief and team spirit. The Abu Dhabi club had only once before been crowned UAE champions, in 2011, but halted their six-year wait by setting many professional-era records, including most points (68) and most victories (22). Perched at the top, now they must stay there. It will be difficult, considering they have a target on their back, while they have the Fifa Club World Cup in December, and an improvement in the Asian Champions League, to consider. Jazira have recruited well, but it remains to be seen how manager Henk ten Cate configures his line up. There will be a serious threat, too, from 2016/17 runners-up Al Wasl, while Al Nasr are aiming high with Cesare Prandelli as manager. Also, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai and Al Ain have much to prove.
Defeat to Al Hilal this week, allied with last season’s fourth-placed AGL finish, means Al Ain are now looking at 2019 as their next opportunity at landing the one trophy they crave above all else. There remains speculation that Shabab Al Ahli Dubai could forfeit their place in next year’s tournament, but for now Al Ain’s immediate future lies in restoring the club to the domestic summit. The UAE’s most decorated side (12 league titles), they have not won any trophy in two seasons. Predictably, their support is restless. Most likely without Champions League commitments from February, Al Ain must focus firmly on matters at home and take advantage of a reduced schedule. The squad remains one of the league’s strongest, with captain Omar Abdulrahman the standout. Thus, the pressure is on manager Zoran Mamic to end the club’s barren spell.
It has been a difficult time for UAE football. Not only did the national team fail to make next summer’s World Cup, but Al Ain’s Asian Champions League exit means the Emirates’ run of consecutive final appearances is over. The problems stretch back deeper, though, with some coming to a head in May, when Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai club merged to become Shabab Al Ahli Dubai. Sharjah and Al Shaab followed, becoming one entity also. It emphasised the financial troubles that blight many professional clubs. Subsequently, the AGL has been reduced from 14 to 12 teams, for the 2017/18 season only. In theory, a streamlined league should increase in quality. A potential play-off to decide the make-up of next season’s 14-team division suggests the bottom of the table could be even more competitive. A period of adaptation is needed.
Which of the new signings will have greatest impact?
Given the financial landscape, this summer's transfer window has been relatively quiet. There has not been the usual frenzy for big-money recruits, with clubs tightening the purse strings. Undoubtedly, Jazira led the way in signings, with the champions bringing in locals Ahmed Khalil and Mohammed Ayed. Also, they bolstered their foreign ranks with former Real Madrid midfielder Lassana Diarra and former El Jaish stars Romarinho and Sardor Rashidov. Credibly, all arrived on free transfers. Striker Romarinho looks the pick, while Diarra should provide Jazira’s defence more protection. Elsewhere, Al Ain’s purchase of Sweden international striker Marcus Berg promises much, as does Sharjah’s acquisition of Chilean international midfielder Cesar Pinares. Other than that, Anthony Caceres (Al Wasl), Mohannad Abdulraheem (Al Dhafra), Marcelo Cirino (Al Nasr), Park Jong-woo (Emirates) and Mourad Batna (Al Wahda) should prove astute recruits.
Can Olaroiu work his magic at Dubai’s newest club?
Cosmin Olaroiu is regarded as the AGL’s finest manager, and with good reason. The Romanian has enjoyed incredible success through spells with Al Ain and Al Ahli, winning the championship four times. Last season, he was voted the division’s best, albeit somewhat controversially given Henk ten Cate’s work at Al Jazira. However, this campaign could provide his greatest test. Since the merger in May, Olaroiu has had to slash an extremely bloated squad. Granted, he could cheery-pick the most talented players from three clubs, and at Ahli he had already an enviable cast. Yet key men have departed, with playmaker Everton Ribeiro now back in Brazil, and no notable new signings have arrived. There is no obvious candidate to fill the Asian slot. Meanwhile, Makhete Diop and Henrique Luvannor are Olaroiu's only two trusted foreign players. It is far from ideal.