x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UAE's top division has to make up for lost time

The 46-day break is over and the Pro League resumes with top-placed Al Jazira fending off their rivals.

Al Jazira's Ibrahim Diaky has scored eight league goals so far, helping his side into top spot. Jeff Topping / The National
Al Jazira's Ibrahim Diaky has scored eight league goals so far, helping his side into top spot. Jeff Topping / The National

It was October 27, or 46 days ago, when last we looked in on the Pro League. Al Jazira outscored Kalba 4-3 on that date to return to the top of the table after eight rounds, two points clear of Baniyas.

The league was enjoying surging attendance; Carlo Nohra, its chief executive, said spectators were "up 20 to 25 per cent", and he also believed that "the product on the pitch was better than it was a year ago".

And then the league came to a halt, the pawn of a series of international competitions that placed heavy demands on the league's Emirati players and distracted the champions Al Wahda.

"These are conditions that were beyond the league's control," Nohra said yesterday. "Trying to schedule around the Asian Games, the Gulf Cup, the Club World Cup and, next month, the Asian Cup has been very, very challenging. No doubt, we lost the momentum that we built up over the first eight weeks, but the interruptions were inevitable."

To recap, some of the unfolding story lines included:

Jazira's latest push for a first league championship. Abel Braga's side have three successive second-place finishes behind them. A fourth will not suffice.

The continued rise of Baniyas, surprise fourth-place finishers a season ago and championship contenders on the strength of a strong contingent of young Emirati players and Andre Senghor, the Senegalese who leads the league in scoring with 10 goals.

Al Ahli's Fabio Cannavaro Experiment. The Dubai club brought in the Italian defender, the 2006 World Player of the Year, at a cost that could be as high as Dh22.5 million this season, to boost interest in the club and be their captain. Cannavaro, however, is 37 and his influence has been muted; only the three bottom clubs have conceded as many goals as Ahli's 14.

Al Wasl's surprise push, led by the Spaniard Francisco Yeste, arguably the best player in the league for the first eight weeks, one of the league's hard men but also one of its top scorers, with seven goals.

The league has jammed three rounds of matches into 12 days through to December 23 to complete the first half of the season, then goes quiet again for a month, during the Asian Cup, before resuming in late January.

The rescheduled ninth round will be contested tonight and tomorrow, during a gap in the Club World Cup schedule, affording the league potential exposure to foreigners who are in the UAE for the Fifa event.