x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE Pro League is ready for a second take

As clubs return to action after their break, here are five questions from John McAuley.

Al Wasl's Pro League campaign has been hampered by a knee injury to Mariano Donda, left, whose future is uncertain. Jake Badger for The National
Al Wasl's Pro League campaign has been hampered by a knee injury to Mariano Donda, left, whose future is uncertain. Jake Badger for The National

Can anyone stop Al Ain?

Seven points clear, no defeats since the season opener and an average of three goals scored in every game: apart from that, are the champions really any good?

To prevent Al Ain from retaining their title, a chasing pack that perhaps features only Al Jazira, Al Ahli and Baniyas will certainly require a sense of magic.

Granted, searching for portents involves clutching at straws or scraping barrel bottoms, but maybe there is reason for tempered optimism.

Al Ain add to their agenda the Asian Champions League, and a crammed schedule will stretch resources - resources that have already enjoyed very little respite.

Add the absence, to the African Cup of Nations, of Asamoah Gyan, a striker with at least a goal in every round, and their closest rivals's recruitment of quality, not to mention a settled Jazira unbeaten in eight, and it does not look so bad, after all.

Which new signing will have the greatest impact?

A window that began with Ahli's surprise claiming of Ricardo Quaresma and continued with Baniyas's capture of Christian Wilhelmsson suggested this typically disagreeable month for transfers had gained new life.

Al Nasr then added Takayushi Morimoto, Al Wasl seem set to replace the injured Mariano Donda with Achille Emana, and Al Wahda were lively – Dino Djulbic the highlight.

Al Shaab, Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah have bolstered ranks with experienced foreign players as they seek to maintain top-flight status.

It is the top of the table, though, that interests most. While Morimoto should guarantee goals and Wilhelmsson offers cut and thrust to Baniyas's attack, Quaresma represents the standout.

Possessing pace, tricks and a fierce strike, the former winger of Europe's top clubs, signed as a free agent following a tumultuous time at Turkey's Besiktas, should simply have too much for opposition defenders. A questionable temperament could be the only hitch.

Who will beat the drop?

The teams ranked 12th-14th, cut off from those above, can expect a fraught few months. In truth, they should be used to it. The "lost" columns for Shaab, Kalba and Dibba display double digits, significantly more goals have been conceded than the league's 22.3 average, and their current managers were not employed when the season began. Kalba are on to their third coach already.

Shaab, though, seem best positioned to prosper. Level on points with Kalba and three above Dibba, they have proved astute: Rodrigo Vergilio and Rodrigo Souza Silva released for Noel Kaseke and Filipe Teixeira; their porous back line plugged with a veteran goalkeeper and a pair of defenders.

Meanwhile, Kalba, despite signing Edward Sadomba and Junior Felicio Marques, have recruited only Ramadan Mohammed to fortify the division's worst defence.

Dibba need a radical overhaul of their foreign contingent, yet so far only Junior has gone. That alone will not prolong their stay.

What impact will Sven have?

Nasr's decision to install a technical adviser can be viewed from two camps.

The first sees a conduit between coach and committee, someone to smooth rough roads and aid the recruitment process. The other suspects a divisive influence, a clash of opinions and a ready-made replacement should the board covet change.

In lodging Sven-Goran Eriksson at Al Maktoum Stadium, Nasr have every base covered. Yes, the Swede boasts one of football's most colourful CVs, has a considerable contacts book and knows coach Walter Zenga from his time guiding the goalkeeper at Sampdoria.

Yet Eriksson's presence hints that, should supporters continue to air grievances, however unjustly – Nasr are fifth but advancement seems assured – Zenga could begin to feel the strain.

Eriksson predicts little impact until the summer and insists he has clearly defined his role. He did, however, concede to preserving a desire to coach. Zenga will have taken note.

Where next for Al Wasl?

After a particularly taxing 2011/12, Wasl would surely have been looking forward to a season of steady progress. Serenity and success appeared sound ambitions following the appointment of Bruno Metsu and some shrewd acquisitions, yet the Frenchman's unfortunate illness, understandably, unsettled minds.

The results reflect that. Guy Lacombe, Metsu's replacement, has struggled to implement improvement, as Wasl have won only two of nine league games. Currently eighth, it will not sit well with the venerable club.

In a further blow, Donda will miss the rest of the campaign because of a knee injury, and no one player exerts as much influence on Wasl as the instrumental Argentine.

If Emana is deemed his deputy, then the Zabeel Stadium could become a cauldron of malcontent. Though talented, the midfielder has frustrated this season, seeming more sluggish as the weeks progressed. For Wasl, opening examinations against Nasr and Ahli are not what the doctor ordered.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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