x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pro League teams start final run to grab Asian Champions League spots

Al Ain are in but six other clubs have their chances before them to qualify for the Asian Champions League. John McAuley reports.

Ahmed Khalil, left, has risen to become one of Al Ahli's scoring threats to give the team more options.
Ahmed Khalil, left, has risen to become one of Al Ahli's scoring threats to give the team more options.

Considering the Pro League's lethargy in Asia this season, it seems a mite fanciful to talk up the current clamber for a top-four finish.

Leave Al Ain to one side and continental grades do not tally with the competition's prominence.

Of the UAE's other Asian Champions League entrants - Al Jazira, Al Nasr and Al Shabab - only one victory has been gleaned from nine matches, while two of the trio languish at the foot of their groups. Shabab, courtesy of Wednesday's win against Al Ittifaq, sit third in theirs.

Yet the Pro League table portrays a mighty scramble to qualify for Asia 2013/14. Again, Al Ain stand alone, the champions 10 points clear of second and closing in on successive titles. However, behind them, a melee of clubs fight for positions two to four, with six sides separated by nine points with seven rounds remaining.

It is the number four that matters come May 25, though. By the close of play and the conclusion of another Pro League term, the country's top two sides will automatically qualify for the Champions League, with the third- and fourth-placed teams entering a preliminary round.

 

Al Ahli - 39 Pts

Manager Quique Sanchez Flores's side have emerged as Al Ain's closest challengers following three victories. Success has taken root up front.

Grafite's return from a six-game suspension always guaranteed goals, yet a resurgent Ahmed Khalil has proved a surprising contributor since recapturing his scoring touch during the UAE's Gulf Cup success.

The Emirati was man of the match against Al Shaab last Friday.

Remember, Luis Jimenez and Ricardo Quaresma form allies in attack, a frontline that can rightfully draw comparisons with Al Ain's.

The next four rounds will test Al Ahli's resolve - they play those around them - but Sanchez Flores enjoys this part of the campaign: last year his troops went unbeaten in their final seven matches, winning six.

Remaining fixtures

Al Ain (H)

Baniyas (A)

Wahda (H)

Nasr (A)

Dibba (A)

Ajman (H)

Dhafra (A)

 

Baniyas - 38 Pts

A few weeks ago, Baniyas had genuine designs on wrecking Al Ain's title procession. The Abu Dhabi club entered a seemingly routine home fixture against Dibba Al Fujairah on the back of seven victories from nine matches, yet only mustered a draw. They promptly lost to a struggling Nasr.

However, if the championship appears unattainable, a place in the top four seems certain. For that, the club should thank a productive January transfer window, when Mohamed Aboutrika and Christian Wilhelmsson brought both talent and experience.

Unlike the two teams directly below them, Baniyas will not be burdened by Champions League commitments. Negotiate a tricky run-in and a return to the continent - they shone last season in Asia - is assured.

Remaining fixtures

Shabab (H)

Ahli (H)

Ajman (A)

Dhafra (H)

Al Ain (A)

Jazira (H)

Wasl (A)

 

Al Jazira - 35 Pts

From a position of strength, Jazira find themselves weakened by the whims of their board.

The club were second in late February, having just beaten Al Dhafra convincingly, when Paulo Bonamigo was dismissed as manager.

Luis Milla, Spain's Olympics team coach, immediately took his place in the dugout, yet has suffered an inauspicious start. Seven matches in all competitions have returned a solitary victory.

Jazira have gone from serious title contenders to puffing also-rans.

Given their recent depression, a testing run-in promises even more peril, especially as the Abu Dhabi side must balance Champions League obligations and battle Etisalat Cup distractions, too.

Milla needs time.

But Jazira appear to rapidly require a heavy jolt.

Remaining fixtures

Nasr (A)

Shabab (A)

Kalba (H)

Dubai (A)

Shaab (H)

Baniyas (A)

Wahda (H)

 

Al Nasr - 32 Pts

Nasr have endured a strange season.

Quick out of the blocks, supporters were dreaming of an improvement on last year's runners-up finish by securing a first title since 1986.

Then disaster struck.

Having collected 20 points from their opening nine matches to stay hot on Al Ain's tail, Walter Zenga's side began to stumble, prompting a plunge to fifth in the table.

A run of seven games yielded a single victory, with the 2-1 reverse at Kalba representing the nadir.

March, though, was a productive month.

Nasr amassed seven points from a possible nine, and Takayuki Morimoto has finally found his scoring boots.

Should the January recruit continue to thrive, especially against top-four rivals, then Nasr can expect a third consecutive season in Asia.

Remaining fixtures

Jazira (H)

Wahda (A)

Dibba (A)

Ahli (H)

Ajman (A)

Dhafra (H)

Al Ain (A)

 

Al Wahda -31 Pts

For successive seasons, injuries have dulled Al Wahda's league ambitions.

Just as in the 2011/12 campaign, the capital club have rarely been able to field their first-choice team, with Eric Mouloungui, the summer signing, managing a single appearance.

Home-grown players have fared only marginally better, with Ismail Matar, Hamdan Al Kamali and Saeed Al Kathiri spending more time on the sidelines than on the pitch.

Understandably, results reflected the malady.

Wahda became one of the division's most inconsistent sides, scintillating one week, insipid the next.

However, Branko Ivankovic's charges are undefeated since January, with four victories from five matches.

A glance at their remaining fixtures suggests that a Champions League spot is unachievable, but Wahda have laid sturdy foundations for 2013/14.

Remaining fixtures

Wasl (H)

Nasr (A)

Ahli (A)

Ajman (H)

Dhafra (A)

Al Ain (H)

Jazira (A)

 

Al Shabab - 30 Pts

Shabab may currently languish in seventh, but coach Marcos Paqueta is still confident of bringing Champions League football back to the club next season.

The Brazilian, vastly experienced, is not dimming with age.

A 13-match unbeaten run, halted in February, illustrated his side's top-four credentials, while Edgar Bruno and Ciel are a proven prolific partnership.

Strangely, success may be Shabab's undoing.

Following Wednesday night's victory, they now aspire to extend their Asian campaign, and next month will enjoy a President’s Cup semi-final with Wahda.

Balancing different responsibilities threatens to thwart such lofty goals, although Shabab have perhaps the easiest fixture list of their rivals. They might just surprise, after all.

Remaining fixtures

Baniyas (A)

Jazira (H)

Wasl (A)

Dibba (H)

Kalba (H)

Dubai (A)

Shaab (H)

jmcauley@thenational.ae