x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Pro League is bigger and better than before

While every team has added star quality, last year's big three of Al Ahli, Al Jazira and Al Ain are still the ones to watch.

Goals from UAE international striker Faisal Khalil, right, helped Al Ahli win the Pro League title last season, ahead of Al Jazira and Al Ain.
Goals from UAE international striker Faisal Khalil, right, helped Al Ahli win the Pro League title last season, ahead of Al Jazira and Al Ain.

After the nail-biting finish to last season, the Pro League returns with a bigger and better cast, hoping to lure a wider a spectrum of the population to the turnstiles with their star quality. Ricardo Oliveira, Andriy Shevchenko's replacement at AC Milan, has traded the Andalusian capital Seville for Abu Dhabi and Al Jazira. Jose Sand, top scorer in Argentina last season, has made Al Ain his new home. Douglas dos Santos, a Brazilian Cup winner earlier this year with Corinthians, has picked Al Wasl as his new challenge.

Carlos Tenorio, scorer of a record 10 goals in a single game, has spurned interest from some top clubs to join Al Nasr. The list is a long one. Every club has strengthened their ranks, promising a much stiffer competition. However, last season's top three - Al Ahli, Jazira and Al Ain - remain the teams to beat. Among them, Al Ain have made a couple of impressive additions - Sand and the Brazilian Emerson - as they make a second bid for a domestic clean sweep. They missed out on the league title last season after capturing the Etisalat Cup and President's Cup crowns, and finished third.

For their coach Winfried Schaefer, the showman of the troupe with his theatrics in the dugout, a lowering of the bar would be unfitting for a club he considers the "Real Madrid" of the nation. "We are a big club, a famous club in a way," says the German without a trace of modesty. "We can't be satisfied with one trophy. We must fight for all. We have five trophies to play for, including the Asian Champions League, and obviously we want to win all. And we have quality to achieve our goals - we have three good foreign players and more mature Emirati players in the line-up this season.

"Emerson is a fantastic player. He has impressed me in training and I hope he will strike a good partnership with [Jorge] Valdivia and Sand." With Sand and Emerson leading the attack, and the magical Valdivia marshalling the midfield, Al Ain, who start against Al Nasr at home on Monday, look strong. But Jazira, who were the bridesmaids for the second successive time last season, are not far behind.

Abel Braga, who engineered the biggest coup of last season by bringing the Brazilian Rafael Sobis to the Mohammed bin Zayed stadium from Spain, has raided Real Betis again to add the classy Oliveira to his burgeoning roster. The Australian defender Michael Beauchamp has also joined the squad from Danish side Aalborg. The Brazilian coach is determined to end Jazira's frustrating wait for their first major trophy after a heartbreaking finish last season, when they finished a point behind champions Ahli. The dream of playing in next year's Fifa Club World Cup on home ground is an added incentive.

"I want to see Al Jazira play in the Club World Cup on our home pitch," he says. "We missed out last season, but hopefully we can fulfil that dream. With Oliveira, we have one of the biggest signing. We will miss Sobis for the first few games [with a knee injury], but we have Tony [the Ivorian striker], who is a seasoned player, to fill that void." Ioan Andone must surely be envious of Jazira's strength in depth as the new Ahli coach battles injuries that have plagued his side in pre-season. Half his starting lineup are still on the treatment table.

But the Romanian said: "There is great spirit and desire in the team to do well in every competition," he said. "We had similar injury problems last season, but the reserves stepped in to get the job done. So I have full faith in them. "I have watched Ahli's games from last season, not one or two, but more than 20 games and I know the strength and character of this team. I have no doubt that we are the best."

sports@thenational.ae