x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Tough tasks ahead for top two

The promotion of Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah to the Pro League has not, so far, proved a happy experience - while the sides who secured their Pro League place via the pre-season playoffs have enjoyed more success so far.

Al Ain's Jires Kembo-Ekoko scores against Dibba Al Fujairah
Al Ain's Jires Kembo-Ekoko scores against Dibba Al Fujairah

It is the unhappy fate of the Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah clubs to have won direct promotion to the Pro League last spring. Had they finished third and fourth in Division One, instead of first and second, they may have been far better prepared to compete in the top flight.

To be sure, it was an unusual situation. Not until the domestic season was complete did the Football Association take the decision to expand the Pro League from 12 teams to 14. Thus, even with Dibba and Kalba coming up, the league needed two more sides.

That led, in September, to the surprisingly entertaining four-team promotion play-offs, with the "relegated" Sharjah and Emirates competing with the Nos 3 and 4 finishers in Division One - Al Dhafra and Al Shaab - to become the 13th and 14th clubs in the bigger league.

In any other year, Dhafra and Shaab, condemned to another season in the second tier, would have spent the summer making the modest moves befitting a Division One UAE side: securing a couple of expatriates, working on some minor loans, hoping the kids would find their footing.

Instead, the dangling carrot of promotion prompted the two sides to kick out the blocks.

Al Shaab secured the Brazilian midfielder Rodrigo Souza Silva as well as the Frenchman Michael N'dri and the Brazilian Rodrigo Vergilio, each a proven scorer in the UAE.

They also secured the goalkeeper Yousuf Abdulrahman, the former Olympic team stopper mended from a near-fatal automobile accident in 2010.

Dhafra went even further. The Abu Dhabi club brought in 17 players, including the Senegalese striker Makhete Diop, the Ivorian forward Amara Diane, who impressed with Al Nasr last season, and the veteran Brazilian midfielder Pinga. They also added no fewer than three former national team captains: Abdulsalaam Jumaa, Abdulrahman Jumaa and Mohammed Qassim.

The reconstructed side spent two weeks in July getting acquainted at a camp in Germany, the sort of endeavour that typically costs hundreds of thousands of dirhams.

Dhafra and Shaab then went through the crucible of the mini-league, three high-stakes matches in 10 days in the heat of mid-September, and when they won promotion, they were primed for league competition.

After five of the 26 rounds, Dhafra have eight points, three from a shock victory over Al Jazira, and Shaab have six. And more, each seem comfortable playing at the higher level.

And what of Kalba and Dibba, the sides who finished first and second in Division One last season? Both are struggling. Badly.

Dibba opened with a scoreless draw at Dubai and dropped their next four by an aggregate 14-5. Tellingly, they lost to both Dhafra and Shaab.

Last week, the top-flight debutants fired their coach, Marcelo Cabo, and replaced him with Abdullah Misfir.

Kalba have been worse: five consecutive defeats in the league (by an aggregate 21-2 score) and two defeats in the Etisalat Cup. Their first coach, Dragan Talajic, was dismissed after they failed to score in their first three league matches. Lufti Benzarti is in charge of picking up the pieces.

By now, it is difficult to recall, or imagine, that Kalba and Dibba were better last season than were Dhafra and Shaab.

We can attribute some of that turnaround to the stronger finances of Dhafra, especially, and Shaab.

But seemingly of more importance was the momentum and confidence those two brought to the season from a mini-tournament Kalba and Dibba had not been required - or should we say allowed? - to play.

Kalba and Dibba may have been the 11th and 12th teams into the 14-team league, but their stumbling starts mark them as Nos 1 and 2 most likely to fall out of it.