x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pro League: Al Ahli have a recipe for success if they can keep the cook

Having finished second behind Al Ain in the Pro League, Al Ahli have wasted no time in strengthening their squad in an effort to become the country's No 1 team next season.

Quique Sanchez Flores has raised his profile with European clubs thanks to his success at Al Ahli.
Quique Sanchez Flores has raised his profile with European clubs thanks to his success at Al Ahli.

The recent President's Cup final in Abu Dhabi was a microcosm of Al Ahli's season. A stunning start. Unexpected setbacks. A strong finish, inspired by Grafite and Luis Jimenez.

And a glorious finale.

The one thing missing for Quique Sanchez Flores's team was consistency. Two steps forward, one step back.

However, having finished second behind Al Ain in the Pro League, Al Ahli have wasted no time declaring their intention to fix that problem.

Last week saw the arrival of former Sporting Lisbon, Newcastle United, Valencia and Braga midfielder Hugo Viana, making him the second Portuguese international, alongside Ricardo Quaresma, to join the Dubai club.

This is a player Newcastle paid €12 million (Dh63.1m) for in 2002.

Emirati Humaid Abbas has also joined from Al Nasr.

The arrival of Viana, who played under Sanchez Flores at Valencia, is the biggest indication yet that Al Ahli's coach is staying put in Dubai, despite constant speculation he is leaving the club.

The club are also locked in a battle with Al Ain over the signature of Al Jazira's Ivorian captain Ibrahim Diaky.

Off the pitch, Diaky's capture would be seen as a major coup for Al Ahli over their increasingly bitter rivals.

On the pitch, Al Ahli had the better of the head-to-head meetings last season against Al Ain, sensationally defeating the champions 6-3 on the opening day of the season, and knocking them out of the President's Cup in the semi-final.

Sandwiched in between was an ill-tempered Pro League stalemate at Rashed Stadium in which a referee's assistant was hit by an object from the stands. (The match was suspended and a 3-0 win was later awarded to Al Ain).

But while Al Ahli won two battles, they lost the war, Al Ain securing the league title by 11 points.

The strength and depth of their squad proved a decisive factor, with coach Cosmin Olaroiu able to rotate and rest players according to the demands of a heavy fixture list that included the Asian Champions League.

Clearly, his team adapted the best.

That could be about to change, with Al Ahli holding several cards when it comes to attracting new talent.

One of them, often overlooked, is location.

Just as some players prefer moving to London-based Premier League clubs rather than those in other parts of England, Al Ahli is a tempting destination for players with a preference for living in the fast-paced city of Dubai.

It may not be a spoken preference, but is a major factor nonetheless.

Would Viana have been as tempted to join Al Ain, even with their current footballing superiority?

Al Ahli's trump card, however, and indeed their greatest hope for future success, is Sanchez Flores himself. Having won two cups in his two full seasons at Ahli, as well as finishing fifth and second respectively in the Pro League, the coach has built a team that is on the rise.

"We are very happy with this because it caps off two years of excellent work with an amazing group of players," Sanchez Flores said after the 4-3 cup final win over Al Shabab.

The Pro League title, however, will be the prime target for 2013/14. The club's quick manoeuvring in the transfer market this summer, not to mention the financial backing the club's owners have consistently given their coach, is evident of their intentions. It is money that needed to be spent wisely, and Sanchez Flores has shown himself mostly to be a shrewd operator in the transfer market.

And it is not just the arrivals of big names such as Grafite, Viana and Quaresma, who will likely return to Europe after a mediocre half season at Ahli.

In March 2012, Sanchez Flores clashed with then Al Wasl goalkeeper Majed Naser, the Emirati eventually receiving a 17-match ban for slapping the Spanish coach. By the end of that year, with his suspension reduced, Naser was Al Ahli's No 1 after joining the Red Knights in a surprise move. His superb form was one of the reasons behind the team's fine end to the season, which saw them win seven wins of nine league matches, and that dramatic cup final triumph.

Sanchez Flores is 48 and his stock is high enough in Europe that a return to Spain, or France - where big-spending Monaco have reportedly been casting admiring eyes at him - would not be a surprise.

Hopefully he will decide he has unfinished business here in the UAE: making Al Ahli the country's No 1 team.

The signs are good for next season; they have the fan base, they have the players. And, for now at least, they have the coach.

Sprinkle a little bit of consistency, and Ahli could be riding towards league glory next May.

 

akhaled@thenatinal.ae

 

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