Sharjah, Al Shaab, Al Dhafra and Emirates face off for the final spots in expanded top flight.
Four clubs set to begin fight for last two places in Pro League
Given their activity in the transfer market, Al Dhafra and Emirates have been made the favourites going into the four-team Pro League promotion play-offs, but officials from the two clubs seem wary of such high expectations.
Dhafra have signed 17 new players for their campaign, a mix of youth and experience, including three former national team captains: Abdulsalaam Jumaa, Abdulrahman Jumaa and Mohammed Qassim. Among the foreigners, they have retained the services of Pinga and added Amara Diane, who impressed at Al Nasr last season, and Makita Diop.
Emirates have not added as many in number, but they match Dhafra in quality. The former UAE star Haidar Ali and the Al Wahda goalkeeper Mutaz Abdullah are among the 10 new arrivals in Lutfi Benzarti's team. The Ras Al Khaimah club have also gone big on their foreign players, bringing in the Argentine striker German Herrera from the Brazilian club Botafogo and the Paraguay international Nestor Ortigoza.
Modibo Diarra, who scored 11 goals in the Pro League after moving to Emirates in January, keeps his place, while Hassan Maatouk has switched from Ajman. The Lebanese winger, however, will not be available for the play-offs as he is on international duty.
With the quality they have assembled for the play-offs, which kick off tonight, both clubs have been made favourites by fans and pundits alike, but officials from the two clubs beg to disagree.
"We have worked hard to give our team a good chance," said Saif Mohammed, the Emirates team manager. "We have brought some top players, who enjoy a good reputation in the UAE and have a lot of experience.
"That should help us, but on the field it is a different story. The team who plays better on the day, is more focused, is going to win."
Djemal Hadziabdic, the Dhafra coach, had similar sentiments. "I think all four teams have equal chances and it is going to be an exciting competition," he said.
"We have utmost respect for all the teams and in my personal opinion, a club like Sharjah does not deserve to be playing in Division One. Having said that, I believe with the quality we have, we don't deserve to be playing in Division One either.
"That is what I have told my players and now it is up to them to prove it on the pitch. All four teams start with zero points and the one who performs the best over the coming three matches will progress to the Pro League."
Sharjah finished at the bottom of the Pro League last season and have sold Abdulaziz Sanquor to Al Ahli, taking six players in exchange on one-year loan deals. Faouzi Benzarti, their new Tunisian coach, has put his trust in his two African recruits, the Algerian Lazhar Hadj Aissa and Moussa Narry of Ghana, while retaining the Brazilian striker Marcelinho in the squad.
Salem Khamis, the Al Ahli and Al Nasr veteran, has also been brought in to help with Sharjah's bid for a return to the Pro League.
"I know Dhafra and Emirates are being billed as the favourites, but people will be forced to change their views once they watch this new Sharjah team play," said Khamis Al Suwaidi, the chairman of Sharjah Club.
"Our goal is to first qualify for the Pro League and then work harder to create a team which can fight for trophies," Benzarti said. "When I look into the eyes of my players, I can see this same desire - they all want to play in the Pro League and they will do all they can to get there."
Sergio, the Shaab coach, was equally confident about his players and said they will not be "intimidated" by any side.
The Sharjah-based club, who last appeared in the Pro League in 2008/09, have bolstered the team with the addition of the Brazilians Rodriguez and Rodrigo Vergilio, the former Al Nasr striker, and the Frenchman Michael N'dri.
On the domestic front, they have signed the former Al Wasl man Khalid Darwish, the veteran defender Kazim Ali, Al Ahli's Jumaa Sanqoor and Salah Abbas of Ajman.
Tomorrow, September 4
Emirates v Al Shaab (at Ajman) 7.15pm; Sharjah v Al Dhafra (at Al Ain) 7.20pm
Emirates v Al Dhafra (at Al Wasl); Sharjah v Al Shaab
(at Al Ahli)
Al Dhafra v Al Shaab (at Al Ain); Emirates v Sharjah
(at Al Shaab)