x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Wahda will be the team to topple

If Al Wahda are the team to catch, then Al Ahli are likely to be the team to watch as the new Pro League season kicks off this weekend.

Al Wahda have retained the services of Fernando Baiano, left, the prolific Brazilian who fired them to a fourth domestic league title last season.
Al Wahda have retained the services of Fernando Baiano, left, the prolific Brazilian who fired them to a fourth domestic league title last season.

If Al Wahda are the team to catch, then Al Ahli are likely to be the team to watch as the new Pro League season kicks off this weekend. Ten other contenders, from Al Jazira, last year's runners-up, to the newly-promoted Dubai and Kalba, are all sure to play their parts but, for the moment, Wahda and Ahli remain the centre of attention.

Wahda secured their fourth Pro League championship in April and gained a place in the prestigious Club World Cup, featuring the likes of Inter Milan, the European Champions League holders, to be contested in December in the capital. Wahda have retained most of their squad, including Fernando Baiano, the Brazilian striker. "It is too early for me to make any comment on how the league and the season would work out for us," Laszlo Boloni, the new coach of the Abu Dhabi club, said. "As for our preparations, it has gone well."

Ahli, meanwhile, made the biggest moves. After flopping in the 2009 Club World Cup, the Dubai-based club brought in Fabio Cannavaro, the much-decorated former Italian international, to anchor the defence and hired David O'Leary, the former Leeds United and Aston Villa manager, to coach the team. O'Leary has warned that Ahli need time to gel, but they already are objects of intense curiosity. Boloni suggested that Ahli's season will hinge on how much help Cannavaro, the 2006 World Player of the Year, has around him. "He's a high-profile signing and good for the league, but sometimes the best player can't make a difference in a club," Boloni said. "He will need help from the Emirati players around him."

Wahda were stunned by relegation victims Emirates last week in the Super Cup, and Boloni insisted it was a bitter lesson to learned on what lies ahead of them this season. "I have a pretty decent squad but they must get stronger in the head. Losing to Emirates was a lesson learned. It has made the players realise not to be complacent. But that's history now. We are looking ahead for the next game."

Because of a crowded calendar, one that includes the Gulf Cup in Yemen from November 22 to December 4 and the Asian Cup in Qatar from early January, the Pro League starts early, with Ahli playing at Al Dhafra and Wahda at Al Wasl tomorrow night. The other eight clubs play on Friday or Saturday. During Ramadan, all games begin at 10pm. Jazira and Al Ain, two big-spending Abu Dhabi clubs, could present the greatest competition for Wahda in the Pro League title race.

Jazira will be looking to end their run of finishing second for the past three years. They signed the two most expensive players in the previous two seasons, Rafael Sobis (Dh65 million) in 2008 and Ricardo Oliveira (Dh85m) last year, but they have both been loaned to clubs in their native Brazil, Sao Paulo and Internacional, respectively. They have retained Toni, the Ivorian striker for his fourth season here, and Bare, the Brazilian forward, crosses over from Ahli after two years with them. Matias Emilio Delgado, the Argentine playmaker from the Turkish club Besiktas, is set to become their third foreign player.

It has been so close and yet so far for Jazira, one of the richest clubs in the Emirates, who are yet to win the league. "I just hope we can fulfil the league dreams this season," said Abel Braga, the Brazilian who is preparing for his third season in charge of the club. "We were just not lucky enough in the last two years. We want to play good and obviously the main objective is to win the league. And with a bit of luck, I feel we have a good squad to accomplish our goals."

Al Ain are still in a state of shock after Jorge Valdivia's departure from their training camp in Austria last month. They have yet to find a replacement with just three days to go before their first game against Dubai, the promoted club. Marcio Emerson, the Brazilian forward, was the first to leave half way through his two-year contract with Al Ain, to play in the Brazilian league for Fluminense. Valdivia rejoined Palmeiras, his former club, also in Brazil. Al Ain had a crisis season with two coaches, Winfried Schaefer and his successor Toninho Cerezo, being sacked before Abdulhameed al Mishtiki, the club's Under 17 coach, was appointed as caretaker. The Emirati guided them through five games without defeat, including a 2-0 win over Sepahan of Iran in the Asian Champions League.

Al Mishtiki has since been given the job full time and is confident he can put the club on the trophy trail. "We will find a new combination, and with a lot of talented Emirati players around, I am very hopeful we can still win trophies," he said. Baniyas were a revelation last season. Returning to the top league for the first time in five years, they finished a creditable fourth. They continue their climb with Lutfi al Benzarti, the Tunisian coach, in his third season. "We blooded a lot of youngsters when we were in the first division, and these players have shown good results," said al Benzarti. "We have a tougher target to improve on our position from last season, and needless to say, we are committed for it."

In terms of spending, Ahli have paved the way for the challenge from the northern clubs, ahead of Al Wasl, Al Nasr and Al Shabab. Sharjah showed a tremendous improvement last year under Manuel Cajuda, the Portuguese coach, after struggling in the relegation zone in the previous year. Ahli seems most likely to challenge the Abu Dhabi clubs that filled the top four places in the league last season. In addition to Cannavaro and O'Leary, the club have added Aristide Bance, the Burkina Faso striker, from Mainz, the Bundesliga club, and lured Pinga, the Brazilian, from Wahda with a three-year deal. Kalba and Dubai, the new boys, will be more intent on avoiding relegation than winning a championship. apassela@thenational.ae

Tomorrow Al Dhafra v Al Ahli, 10pm Al Wasl v Al Wahda, 10 pm Friday 
Kalba v Sharjah, 10pm Al Jazira v Al Nasr, 10pm Saturday Al Ain v Dubai, 10pm Al Shabab v Baniyas, 10pm