x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Relegation battle is providing the drama in Pro League

With Al Ain coasting to their 11th Pro League title, the real interest is at the bottom of the table and an increasingly tight relegation battle.

Dibba players struggling against Ajman during their recent Pro League match.
Dibba players struggling against Ajman during their recent Pro League match.

It was Walter Zenga, the Al Nasr coach, who first conceded the defending champions Al Ain probably were racing to their 11th league title.

"Only if they lose their bus in traffic can they lose a game," the colourful Italian said, much to the chagrin of his club's fans, who were harbouring hopes, this season, of ending their 27-year wait for a league title.

With 12 matches to play and nine points separating Al Ain from their nearest challengers, the Nasr fans may finally be accepting their coach's predictions. And that view is growing. After the 14th round of matches, the Al Jazira veteran Subait Khater and the Ajman coach Abdulwahab Abdulqadir said the same thing: Cosmin Olaroiu's men are stampeding to another championship. Only the most optimistic supporter of another Pro League side would argue seriously his or her team can catch the leaders.

But fans who like a bit of drama in their domestic league season need not despair. As was the case a year ago, when Dubai and Emirates struggled for safety until the final day, relegation battles in the bottom half of the table are shaping up as a fight to the finish.

Al Shaab, Dibba Al Fujairah and Kalba are all level on seven points, and two of them could well be headed back to Division One. But Marius Sumudica reckons there are others in the danger zone - those around the "15-point mark".

"Kalba, Dibba and Shaab will have to fight to stay in the first division," Shaab's Romanian coach said after his team's 1-0 loss at Dubai on Sunday. "Not just us three, but there are other teams, as well. A few teams are around 15 points and they are in danger, as well. So it's not finished yet. There is still a long way to go."

Five other teams have fewer than 20 points in the lower half of the table - Al Dhafra (15), Ajman (15), Al Wasl (17), Al Wahda (18) and Dubai (19). Among those, the last two are probably safe from the bothers of relegation, but the others cannot claim to be in a comfort zone.

Hampered by injuries to key players, Wasl have lost six consecutive matches over three competitions and seem in a state of permanent flux. Coach Guy Lacombe has just been given a vote of confidence, but with possibly three new foreign players and a dearth of local talent in his squad, the Frenchman's rough ride could continue.

At this moment, Wasl look the most susceptible among the lot behind the three backmarkers. Ajman are an unpredictable lot. On their day, they can lord over the likes of Al Wahda and Al Ahli, and lesser sides, but they can be equally disappointing on other days. Dhafra are similar; they have defeated Al Jazira but have lost to Dibba and Kalba.

The bottom three have made some good investments during the break and they could make it tough for the likes of Wasl, Ajman and Dhafra, as Dibba showed in their 3-2 win over the last-named team on Sunday.

Shaab, who conceded 33 goals in the first half, looked better organised with Filipe Teixeira manning the midfield and Noel Kaseke taking charge of their leaky defence. In Mutaz Abdullah, they have an experienced gloveman between the posts.

Edward Sadomba was unfortunate to get a red card on his Pro League debut, but the Zimbabwean will certainly play a crucial role for Kalba in the coming months.

The Brazilians Luiz Fernando and Alex are getting their act together at Dibba and, with the addition of Samuel Ocran and possibly Bilal Najjarine, Abdullah Misfir could well make a stand for Emirati coaches.

It will not be easy for those three teams, though. The difference of eight points might prove too big a deficit. But each team in the league still has 36 points to play for, and a couple of wins for the three sides at the bottom could really spice up the relegation battles.

 

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