Ahead of the start to the Arabian Gulf League season, John McAuley identifies the 10 arrivals who will make for the most worthwhile viewing in the UAE this year.
Emmanuel Emenike (Al Ain)
Filling the void created by Asamoah Gyan is an unenviable remit, but the Nigerian striker has never been short on confidence. Upon his arrival from Fenerbahce, Emenike reminded Al Ain fans that he is an African Cup of Nations winner – he finished the 2013 tournament as joint-top scorer – yet he was never prolific in Turkey. Robust and rapid, he will have plenty of chances to convert at the UAE champions. Temperament is questionable, though.
Ryan Babel (Al Ain)
The former Dutch international, whose career has not lived up to his once-prodigious potential, should help lessen the burden on Emenike. Babel has struggled to progress since he stagnated at Liverpool, where he failed to hold onto a regular first-team spot. However, as is forever referenced, he has considerable talent. Recruited from Turkey’s Kasimpasa, the pacey forward will aim to cut in off Al Ain’s left flank and make full use of his powerful shot.
Jorge Valdivia (Al Wahda)
A welcome return to the UAE top flight. Signed from Palmeiras, the Chilean playmaker spent two successful seasons at Al Ain from 2008, where he carved a reputation as one of the most talented players to have graced Emirati football. His recent showing at the Copa America proved Valdivia still possesses the quickness of feet and mind, when he was an integral member of his national team’s march to the title. Keeping him focused will be key.
Denilson (Al Wahda)
Once touted by Arsene Wenger as the solution to Arsenal’s defensive midfield problems, the Brazilian eventually spent seven years in the Premier League before returning to Sao Paulo. At 27, Denilson should just be moving into his prime and his decision to carry it out in the UAE represents a significant coup for Wahda. A clever player with excellent technique and an ability to retain the ball, he possesses the skillset to thrive here.
Thiago Neves (Al Jazira)
Having starred for Al Hilal across two spells since 2009 – most notably in last year’s run to the Asian Champions League final - the Brazilian should need very little time to adapt to UAE football. Also, he knows coach Abel Braga well following their time together at Fluminense. Neves is an excellent attacking midfielder, who is equally adept out wide or deployed as his side’s chief creator. Should get among the goals, too. Could be the league’s star turn.
Jo (Al Shabab)
Perhaps one of the summer’s most surprising transfers, the former Brazil international arrives in the UAE following a disappointing latter spell with Atletico Mineiro. After firing the club to the 2013 Copa Libertadores – Jo finished the tournament as top scorer - the ex-Manchester City striker went an entire year without finding the net. Shabab will hope he recaptures his form from CSKA Moscow, where he became one of Europe’s most coveted strikers. Again, his temperament has been questioned.
Mark Milligan (Baniyas)
If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again. Baniyas finally convinced the Australian international to swap Melbourne Victory for Abu Dhabi, with the capital club snaring their man at the third time of asking. An excellent leader and motivator, Milligan enjoyed a superb final season in Australia, departing as a league winner and man of the match in the Grand Final. Anchors midfield, but can play in defence, as well. An incredibly shrewd signing.
Lima (Al Ahli)
The 2013/14 UAE champions’ long search for a striker finally concluded with Lima’s signature, as the Brazilian was recruited from Benfica just in time to beat the Asian Champions League deadline. Has vast experience in Europe’s equivalent club competition and a record of a goal every other game at Benfica – Lima made 144 appearances there. Excellent for Ahli in pre-season, where his partnership with compatriot Everton Ribeiro has provided real cause for optimism. Contender for the Golden Boot.
Nilmar (Al Nasr)
Last season’s cup specialists have set sights on the league title so a significant remodelling of their foreign contingent was deemed necessary. Nilmar is the only recruit without UAE experience, but his CV includes Lyon, Villarreal and the Brazil national team. Should not take long to settle given he previously spent two years in Qatar. However, his recent record is a concern: Nilmar scored six goals in 25 league appearances for Internacional last season. Certainly possesses the credentials, though.
Jefferson Farfan (Al Jazira)
Completing an impressive summer’s business for the capital club, the Peruvian winger represents another fine addition to the league. Farfan may not have enjoyed the best season last time out for Schalke – injury restricted him to nine Bundesliga appearances – but he has all the attributes to prosper in the UAE. Pacey and powerful, he played an integral role in Peru’s progression to the semi-finals of last month’s Copa America. A veteran at 31, he boasts big-game knowhow.
Three more to look out for
Park Jong-woo (Al Jazira): The South Korean midfielder is dedicated and disciplined. Will help cure Jazira’s previously porous backline.
Renato Caja (Sharjah): An accomplished attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, will integrate easily with the club’s other Brazilians.
Joaquin Larrivey (Baniyas): The robust Argentine striker will prove a handful for defences, and has impressed already in pre-season.