The Arabian Gulf League goes on a break as Mahdi Ali’s UAE team prepare for an Asian Cup qualifier, Thomas Woods looks at what we have learnt so far.
Six games more the wiser in Arabian Gulf League
Al Ahli play like champions
They say that winning games when you are not playing well is the sign of a champion team.
If so, Al Ahli have the title in their hands. The fact that they have a 100 per cent record and a six-point lead at the top of the Arabian Gulf League table already is worrying for their rivals, considering that Cosmin Olaroiu’s team have yet to find their best form.
Their first two games (1-0 v Dubai and 2-1 v Al Wahda) were won with injury-time goals. They also scraped past Sharjah 1-0 and relied on two strikes in the final five minutes to see off Emirates 4-2.
The only truly impressive results were a 2-0 away win at Dubai rivals Al Nasr, and their last match, a 3-2 victory at Baniyas.
Last season, Ahli scored 62 goals in 26 games, second only to Al Ain, and had the second-best defence.
They improved their squad in the summer with the signing of Ciel from Al Shabab and the arrival of playmaker Hugo Viana plus Walid Abbas, the UAE international defender. They hired the best coach in the country over the past two seasons, and they are top of the table despite not playing particularly well.
Just think what they will be like when they hit top form.
Patience is still wearing thin
This will be the sixth season since the UAE’s top flight turned professional and while plenty of progress has been made – in the standard of football, for example – one thing has not changed. The job security of an Arabian Gulf League coach is incredibly low.
In the league’s first professional season, 2008/09, only three of the 12 clubs ended the season without making a change.
Fast forward to last year, when four of 14 managers lasted the entire season. Of those four, Olaroiu switched from Al Ain to Ahli in the middle of the summer.
This season, four managers have already been dismissed, with Dubai’s Martin Rueda paying the price for a poor start on Monday.
Nobody is expecting to see a UAE version of Sir Alex Ferguson, with a manager spending decades at the same club. But stability usually brings success.
Managers who were given at least two years in the job – such as Abel Braga at Jazira, Olaroiu at Al Ain and Paulo Bonamigo at Shabab– usually achieved success.
It would be nice to see more clubs showing patience in their top man.
Or at least giving him more than a quarter of a season to stamp his mark.
Transfer prudence pays off
The summer of ’13 was not marked by the usual flurry of transfer activity, with most clubs retaining some of their foreign contingent.
For example, Al Ain changed one player. Same with Ahli. Shabab shipped two of their Brazilians out but had Carlos Villanueva waiting after a year on the injured list.
Of the players that did arrive, the quality has been evident.
Just take a look at the top of the scoring charts, given that a majority of the AGL’s foreign players are strikers.
That Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain) and Grafite (Ahli) are at the top is no surprise.
But keeping pace are several forwards who have made flying starts to life in the UAE.
Benfica’s Carlos Munoz, on loan at Baniyas, already has five goals. Ditto Shabab’s one new arrival, Adeilson. Emmanuel Clottey, Al Dhafra’s new Ghanaian forward, has four, as does Nasr’s Eder Luis.
But the name that stands out is Ibrahima Toure, Nasr’s Senegalese forward, who arrived from Monaco in the summer.
Toure fired 18 league goals in France last season to help Monaco earn promotion to Ligue 1.
The big-money arrival of Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid scuppered his first-team chances in France, so he has returned to a league where he impressed in half a season in 2011/12, scoring 16 goals in 17 games in all competitions for Ajman.
This term, he already has seven goals in six league games, accounting for more than half of Nasr’s output.
The Dubai club are outsiders for the title and their record of three wins and three defeats sums up their inconsistency.
But with Toure up front, they have a forward whose sheer power and pace can produce a goal out of nothing, which makes them a dangerous prospect.
He could turn out to be the signing of the season.
Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE