x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Khaleej plan to sneak in and cause surprise

When the Etisalat Pro League kicks-off next weekend most of the attention will be around the glamour sides.

When the Etisalat Pro League kicks-off next weekend most of the attention will be around the glamour sides like Al Jazira, Al Ain, Al Ahli and Al Nasr. Big names like the Brazilian striker Rafael Sobis, the Moroccan player Merouane Zemmama, the Egyptian Hosny Abd Rabo and the Sierra Leone captain Mohammed Kallon will hog the spotlight and make all the headlines.

Al Khaleej, a promoted side from the quiet but scenic coastal city of Khor Fakhan, will be expected to play their bit part on the big stage - just make up the numbers, as they say. For Samir al Juwaily, their cheerful Tunisian coach, this is not a slight. It is a blessing in disguise. "The Al Khaleej players will be an unknown quantity in the Pro League, so that could work to our advantage," he says.

"The teams might take us lightly and not give us enough attention. "So we have to use that to our advantage. I hope we will spring a few surprises." Does he really believe that his young side, who have played in the top division for three seasons this decade without creating much of an impression, can match up to the might of the country's big-spending elite? "Why not? The team are in good spirits," he says.

"Their morale is high. They are really looking forward to playing against the big sides and scoring upsets over some of them. "The top division is very tough. I think it is the best in the Arab world. There are lots of very good sides like Al Jazira, Al Ain, Al Wahda and Al Ahli. "But when we take the field against them, we will not be taking their reputation into account. "We don't see any difference between them or the others."

Juwaily's confidence stems largely from what he has seen of the team in a 55-day pre-season training camp in the Czech Republic. His side's runaway success last season, when they won the Division Two title with a 10-point cushion over second-placed Ajman, also adds to the optimism. "Last year they had a very good season, we have to continue in the same direction," he says. "The players are conscious about this and they have worked hard to achieve the same level.

"We trained in the Czech Republic, it was very good and we worked very hard. "We worked on both the physical and tactical aspects of the game. We also played three games and won two of them. "I believe our three overseas players - [Nigerian striker] Abbas Moya, [Congo midfielder] Patrick Kazadi and [Moroccan defender] Murad Rafie - will give our campaign a big boost. "We have been working hard and preparing the team for the tough times ahead. We know we will face some very difficult matches, but I believe in this team.

"We have some very talented players, who are committed to achieving a good finish in the UAE's first-ever Pro League. "But more importantly, the team understands the importance of playing together as a team, as a single personality." Al Khaleej did not lose a game at home as they raced to the Division Two title last season: they were held to a draw in just two of the 15 games they hosted. Juwaily expects his side to show the same determination at home and some panache on the road.

"We have to play to win all the matches," he says. "But when we play at home, we have to make sure we get the full three points. Away, we can accept a single point or an upset win. "We want to have a good season and stay in the professional league - not just stay there, but do it comfortably. "Our objective is to finish in the top six or seven. "I am confident we can do that. We will show to all the people here that we deserve our place in the professional league." arizvi@thenational.ae