Best is yet to come this AGL season

Al Ain’s early distraction in the Asian Champions League has helped Al Jazira and Al Shabab make a race of it, writes Ali Khaled
Mirko Vucinic, right, has given his Al Jazira teammates and their fans plenty to shout about as they are tied atop the Arabian Gulf League with Al Ain. Only a point back lies Al Shabab at the season’s half-way point. Courtesy Al Ittihad
Mirko Vucinic, right, has given his Al Jazira teammates and their fans plenty to shout about as they are tied atop the Arabian Gulf League with Al Ain. Only a point back lies Al Shabab at the season’s half-way point. Courtesy Al Ittihad

Al Ain’s renaissance, Al Jazira’s excellence, Al Ahli’s demise – it has been an eventful first half to the 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League.

As we enter the one-month midseason break, a strange feeling persists that the campaign has yet to really get going.

Much of that stems from the one-month break in November to accommodate the 2014 Gulf Cup in Saudi Arabia, a tournament that both club managers and UAE coach Mahdi Ali no doubt would have preferred to take place at a different time.

Earlier still, Al Ain’s Champions League quarter and semi-final dates necessitated two postponements. That meant they missed the opening day of the season and have played catch-up since.

Their 1-1 draw with Shabab on Monday, a match that was to have been played in September, came hours before the team’s seven Emirati internationals joined the UAE squad for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, which begins January 9 in Australia.

Still, while, the overall standard of football has not always been of the highest order, the season has so far delivered a close battle at the top of the table, with three clubs, possibly four, still in contention for the AGL title.

Not since 2009 has the race come down to the final round; the past four seasons have concluded with the winners clear of the field by 12, 14, 11 and 16 points.

Unburdened by Al Ain’s distractions, Jazira have emerged as the team of the season, playing a brand of attacking football not seen since the club’s only league title was won, in 2010/11, under Abel Braga.

In particular, the signing of Mirko Vucinic from Juventus in the summer has proved a master stroke. The Montenegrin has terrorised AGL defences and his 16 goals are seven more than any other player.

Just as important, he has forged a deadly partnership with Ali Mabkhout (nine goals), one that has seen the UAE striker flourish this season and continue his marked improvement for club and country over the past year.

Eric Gerets’s men have hit the target in every one of their 13 matches, scoring four goals on four occasions and three on five.

Jazira’s doubts are at the other end of the pitch. Their defence has been breached 26 times, more than anyone bar the division’s bottom two clubs. So far, Al Jazira have got away with the leaky defence, but tightening the back four is necessary if the second half of the season is to replicate the first.

If the adage that attacks win matches but defences win championships holds, then Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic should be confident that the title is heading to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in May.

The club has conceded a stingy 11 goals in 12 matches – by a long way the best performance in the AGL – and has scored only five fewer than Jazira, to leave them second in the table.

It has been a remarkable comeback by the Garden City club, considering last season’s upheavals: Champions League distractions and disappointment, injuries to key players including Omar Abdulrahman, and a shaky start to the season.

Yet Al Ain find themselves equal on points with Jazira, who lead the table thanks to their head-to-head record.

The Abu Dhabi club’s stunning, 4-3 victory at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in October separates the teams and the return match in Al Ain in Round 18 of the AGL already has the look of a title decider.

Both will have to contend with AFC Champions League football, though more players from Al Ain will be affected by the Asian Cup and the 2015 African Cup of Nations, which begins January 17 in Equatorial Guinea.

Neither club, though, should discount the threat of Shabab, a club who have steadily improved over the past three seasons.

They were fifth in the league and President’s Cup finalists in 2012/13 and were the only Emirati team to progress to the knockout stages of the 2013 AFC Champions League. They finished fourth last season and are only one point behind the joint leaders.

Shabab are coached by Brazilian Caio Junior who took over from countryman Marcos Paqueta after two years in charge.

He has added consistency and the return of 28 points at the halfway stage already represents 63 per cent of last season’s total.

The club can thank new signing Henrique Luvannor’s nine goals and Carlos Villanueva for his eight, while battering-ram striker Edgar and Uzbek midfielder Azizbek Haydarov remain central figures for the club.

Lack of Champions League football and fewer overworked UAE internationals should be in their favour if Al Ain or Jazira show signs of fatigue in the run-in.

Last season’s second-placed team, Al Wahda, are only two points behind the top two. But the Champions League’s West Asia Zone play-off round and further participation in the competition may stretch Jose Peseiro’s thin playing stocks to their limits.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the season has been champions Al Ahli’s struggles. On the field, the club has had poor form and, off it, disciplinary issues. Cosmin Olaroiu’s move to coach Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup could end any hope of a second-half recovery.

The club are struggling for consistency in mid-table with two other big Dubai sides, Al Nasr and Al Wasl.

At the bottom of the table, Kalba and Ajman already look doomed.

When the AGL returns in February things should be far more interesting at the top.

TOP MATCHES SO FAR

September 21 - Al Ahli 2 Al Shabab 4

Normal service appeared to be resumed as Ahmed Khalil and Humaid Abbas gave the champions a two-goal lead at home in their second match of the campaign. Shabab came storming back with four second-half goals, hinting at the inconsistencies that would haunt Ahli throughout the first half of the season.

October 5 - Al Jazira 4 Al Ain 3

Mirko Vucinic confirmed his presence as a force to be reckoned with as he completed a four-goal haul in a match that highlighted Jazira’s title credentials. Al Ain, who would eventually recover to join the title race, had no answer to the Montenegrin’s intelligent running and devastating finishing that day.

December 14 - Al Shabab 3 Al Jazira 4

Shabab’s two-goal Henrique Luvannor, above, was overshadowed in this top-of-the-table clash by an outstanding show of finishing from Ali Mabkhout. Jazira took a two-goal lead, then trailed 3-2, before the UAE forward equalised and then completed his hat-trick deep into stoppage time.

TOP PLAYERS SO FAR

Mirko Vucinic (Al Jazira)

The Arabian Gulf League’s top scorer has been the player of the season. His four-goal haul against Al Ain will live long in the memory and, even at this early stage of his Jazira career, he can arguably lay claim to being the league’s best foreign signing. A repeat of his heroics in the second half of the season could well see the title going back to Abu Dhabi.

Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)

The UAE forward has over the past year become one of Mahdi Ali’s most valuable players. This season, thanks in part to the addition of Vucinic, Mabkhout has taken his domestic form to a new level. He has scored nine goals and, with Omar Abdulrahman recovering from injury, has emerged as the his country’s main man for the AFC Asian Cup, just as he was at the recent Gulf Cup, where he finished top scorer.

Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain)

The league’s top scorer for the past three seasons, the Ghanaian international – with eight goals in eight matches – is an established feature of the UAE football landscape. Since the resumption of the league, after the Gulf Cup of Nations break, he has scored six goals in six matches and has led Al Ain’s recovery. The club will hope the African Cup of Nations does not take too much out of him.

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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