x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pro League: Season in review – Lots of drama on and off the UAE fields

While Al Ain dished out a pleasing brand of football on the pitch, the campaign was not short on excitement, writes John McAuley.

Al Wasl players showed their love for Bruno Metsu, the ailing manager, who had to leave the team midway. Christopher Pike / The National
Al Wasl players showed their love for Bruno Metsu, the ailing manager, who had to leave the team midway. Christopher Pike / The National

Best conundrum – play-offs

It was a puzzle that would have teased even the most brilliant brain. Plenty of head-scratching and vigorous bashing of calculators preceded the final day of the Pro League's first promotion play-offs. Just who, from Sharjah, Emirates, Al Dhafra and Al Shaab, were still within a shot of filling the last two places in the new, 14-club top flight?

Dzemal Hadziabdic, the Dhafra coach, was convinced his side's second-round victory had guaranteed a spot, so imagine his dismay when it transpired all four clubs had a chance of promotion ahead of the third and final match. Thank heavens, then, that Dhafra went up, alongside Shaab. Rumours that Rain Man's Raymond Babbitt deciphered the lucky two have yet to be corroborated.

Best advert – Al Ain tiki-taka

Those who delight in sneering at the standard of football in the Emirates would have been choking on their words. Al Ain, comfortably the best side in the country, were hosting Ajman at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium when they decided to treat those in attendance to arguably the greatest team goal the league has witnessed.

A stunning, 19-pass move, in which every home player touched the ball at least once, was calmly rounded off by Yousef Ahmad, one of the UAE's next generation of bright young things.

The clip went viral, drawing comparisons to those much-vaunted Spanish tika-taka specialists. Even Lionel Messi and company would have been proud of this one.

Best tribute – Al Wasl

The first few months provided little for Wasl fans to be proud of. The club did start well, but following the serious illness of Bruno Metsu and his subsequent departure as manager, results, understandably, nosedived. Wasl won three of 13 league matches, slipping to ninth.

Guy Lacombe, the new coach, never seemed the best candidate, either; on his arrival the Frenchman conceded he knew nothing about UAE football.

However, one bright spot was the poignant tribute to Metsu in the match against Al Dhafra, when Shikabala celebrated his opener by leading teammates to a giant poster bearing Metsu's picture and a message of support.

A class act.

Everyone wishes the Frenchman the best in his recovery.

Best tutorial – Cosmin Olaroiu

Should the Romanian coach known as Cosmin not fancy seeing out the final year of his contract – he says he will – a career beckons in the education system. He is probably better off teaching, considering how he celebrated his side's clinching of the title.

While Asamoah Gyan and teammates were lapping up the fans' affection after victory against Dubai, Olaroiu was busy in the post-match news conference complaining about referring decisions in their tempestuous tussle with Al Ahli weeks earlier.

Nothing out of the ordinary, you would think. Only here, Olaroiu had wheeled in a huge, plasma-screen TV, and proceeded to talk the gathered media through his own dedicated highlights reel.

It felt more like detention.

Best travel buddies – Dibba Al Fujairah

It is not an unusual story: that gap year inter-railing around Europe with your closest school friend. Seemed a great idea at first.

However, by the time you have reached Prague's Charles Bridge you are not sure whether to take a photograph or a run and jump. Even the football conversation has dried up.

So spare a thought for poor Dibba, who for the season's first three months endured a 400-kilometre round trip to play "home" matches. However, they must have bonded on the bus, as they became more determined to stave off relegation as the weeks passed.

They nearly managed it, too. They obviously were not sick of the sight of one another. Or iPods were a huge benefit.

Worst action – injured referee

Thankfully, fan violence is uncommon in UAE football, although maybe that is why, when it does happen, it appears to swell in severity. However, the actions of a fan during the fraught Al Ahli-Al Ain encounter certainly merited the fallout that accompanied it.

With only seconds of injury time remaining, and the match goalless, a fan seated among the Ahli support launched an object at the head of the referee's assistant, drawing a steady stream of blood. The referee ended the match there and then, with Ahli punished heavily for the episode.

Whether you agree with the sanction, the call taken by the official was the right one. Such unsavoury incidents have no place in the game.

Worst temper – Walter Zenga

Ask any match official, or media member, and they will tell you Al Nasr's Walter Zenga, the fiery Italian coach, is the most imposing figure in the league. He does not suffer fools, and has continually clashed with referees and their assistants, although sometimes with perfect justification.

Take last month's Dubai derby with Al Ahli. With the score at 2-2, the visitors were dubiously awarded a last-minute free kick, which Luis Jimenez gleefully curled home to seal the victory.

Zenga was furious, confronting the referee and having to be restrained by most of his coaching staff. He was promptly sent off and suspended for two matches. If Sir Alex Ferguson loved the "hair dryer", Zenga prefers the blowtorch.

Worst impression – Luis Milla

Picture the scene: a nervous Spanish coach on the doorstep of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, dressed in his finest, flowers in hand and nervously reviewing what to say to the expectant crowd inside.

Especially as Luis Milla was replacing Paulo Bonamigo, the Brazilian popular among the Al Jazira support, having guided his side to second in the league, thrashing Al Dhafra 4-1 that very night.

Just a shame Milla's first few assignments were a daunting Asian Champions League debut in Iran, and then a clash with champions Al Ain. In fact, he did not register a league victory for two months. Bonamigo's name still reverberated around the capital arena. Bit of work to do then, Luis.

Worst stint – Ricardo Quaresma

Surely Dubai is not too bad a place to end up whenever you have, allegedly, fallen out with your employers.

After all, the emirate offers almost everything you need, including relative anonymity – a rare commodity for a player of Ricardo Quaresma's repute.

So you would think he would have been happy when Al Ahli offered the opportunity to resurrect his career at the Rashid Stadium.

However, the sulking winger did not appear excited at his introduction, baseball cap covering his eyes; he barely cracked a smile. It has been his default disposition ever since, and his impact with the club was minimal.

Looks like he will be leaving Dubai this summer. Perhaps he did not like the traffic congestion.

Worst dressed – Omar Abudulrahman

Perhaps he did not get the memo. Granted, it was the first Pro League End-of-Season Awards, but surely the Al Ain playmaker would have noticed the hullabaloo in the build-up to the event.

Imagine Omar Abdulrahman's embarrassment, then, when he rocked up on the green carpet to find Grafite in his best penguin suit, with compatriots Ali Kasheif and Ali Mabkhout looking dapper in kanduras.

The UAE's brightest star had decided to dress down, sporting a T-shirt, jogging bottoms and trainers (view picture gallery).

At least his football just happens to be the most fashionable in the league: Abdulrahman deservedly won prizes for best Emirati player and got the fans' vote, too.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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