x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Stability pays off as Shabab fly under radar to title charge

Pro League previews: Coach Bonamigo believes in creating a side from team players rather than superstars as they take on leaders Al Ain, and more

Azizbek Haydarov, left, has been a good addition for Al Shabab and the Uzbek player has renewed his contract until 2013.
Azizbek Haydarov, left, has been a good addition for Al Shabab and the Uzbek player has renewed his contract until 2013.

DUBAI // When the season began back in September, not many people predicted Al Shabab would finish the year in second place on the Pro League table.

Al Jazira, the defending champions, and Al Ain would have been the obvious choices for the top two, or the big-spending Al Ahli. Even Adel Abdullah, the Shabab captain, was modest about his side's chances in the chase for the title.

"It could be Al Ahli, Al Wasl, Al Jazira and Al Wahda," he said at the Pro League launch. "I am not going to talk about my team, but I hope our team flies under the radar, without anybody realising we are there."

Shabab have been doing just that. They start the new year five points behind Al Ain, who they host tonight in a top-of-the-table clash.

And should they manage to surprise the league leaders, as they did Jazira and Wahda earlier in the season, the Dubai team would close the gap to two points; a win for them at Al Nasr and an Ajman victory at Al Ain would then give Shabab the lead at the halfway stage of the campaign.

Paulo Bonamigo, however, does not wish to look that far ahead.

"My philosophy is simple: just focus on the next game," the Shabab coach said.

"We take one game at a time and take every match as a cup final. Then we turn our attention to the next game. So now our focus is on Al Ain and depending on the result, we will plan for the next one."

This philosophy seems to be working well for Shabab. Yet, a bigger ingredient seems to be the consistency running right through the club. This fact has not escaped the attention of one of the veteran campaigners of UAE football.

"Shabab, for me, are the best team," Salem Khamis, the Nasr playmaker, said.

"They are reaping the fruits of stability and they collected some really good players. They were knocked out of the President's Cup by Jazira, but that was just a small bump; it is not going to affect their league campaign."

Shabab have been one of the most stable sides. They have had the same coach since December, 2009, and the Brazilian has 45 league matches under his belt up till now. Carlos Villanueva arrived at the club a little earlier than Bonamigo and the Chilean midfielder is now in his third season, having scored 13 goals so far.

The Brazilian striker Julio Cesar is in his second season, while his compatriot Ciel arrived in January last year. Uzbekistan's Azizbek Haydarov came to the Mamzar club at the start of the season, and both he and Ciel have agreed to extend their stay at the club by another season until 2013.

Shabab are this month searching for another striker to replace Cesar, who has failed to deliver, but it is unlikely the new arrival will be a "superstar" signing. Bonamigo believes in picking players for a team and not in creating a team around certain individuals.

"If you want to be challenging for trophies, you cannot just rely on a player or two, or even three," he said. "You need collective performances. So the team is more important for me. I don't believe in giving priority to individuals."

An ability to keep fringe players motivated and in shape has seen Shabab ride the absence of key players.

They were without Cesar in the last two matches; Ciel has missed a few through injuries. Haydarov had to return home often for national team duties.

Even against Al Ain, Shabab will not be at full strength. Issa Mohammed, the rock in their defence, will be missing through suspension while Ismael Rabea, the first choice goalkeeper, will be missing as he is on loan from Al Ain and the deal stipulates he cannot play against them.

Al Ain, on the other hand, will be without their Ghanaian star Asamoah Gyan. The league's leading scorer misses the match because of injury and later this month will join up with his national team for the African Cup of Nations.

Bonamigo, however, does not believe Gyan's absence will be much of an issue for the leaders.

"Like I said, top teams like Al Ain are not dependent on one or two players," he said.

"We have been in similar situations, missing important players, but our performance has not suffered. Anyway, if Al Ain are missing Gyan then we will miss Issa Mohammed."

KEY BATTLES (Al Shabab v Al Ain)

Azizbek Haydarov v Ignacio Scocco

The battle of the midfielders will have a big impact on the game. Scocco has entertained with his skills, but Haydarov is a hard man to shake off.

Ciel v Musallem Fayez

Ciel will be a danger man for Shabab and Fayez is likely to be the man covering him. The Brazilian is quick, so expect a physical show from Fayez.

Walid Abbas v Ali Al Wahebi

With Issa Mohammed missing in defence for Shabab, Abbas will have to shoulder a greater responsibility and keep a tight watch on his UAE teammate.

Sharjah v Ajman

Jorvan Vieira, the Sharjah coach, will be looking for his first Pro League win when his team meet Ajman home. They have drawn both their games since the Brazilian took charge but lost the point they earned from a 1-1 draw against Dubai for fielding an ineligible player, leaving them with one point from their last five games. Ajman have not won in their last two games. They are one point ahead of Sharjah in ninth and will be looking to keep their advantage over their opponent.

5pm, Abu Dhabi Sports

Emirates v Al Nasr

Al Nasr travel to Ras Al Khaimah for a meeting with Emirates hoping three points from the bottom team can take them to third in the league table. The home side have won just once, their opening match against Dubai, and face an uphill task against Walter Zenga’s improved side. Nasr were unlucky not to claim three points when Al Wasl scored an injury time equaliser in a 2-2 draw, and Al Jazira came back from two goals down to salvage a point.

4.55pm, Abu Dhabi Sports