How do Al Ain improve? Will Al Ahli solve striker crisis? The current state of AGL’s title contenders
As Arabian Gulf League clubs go about their summer business, John McAuley looks at state of the leading contenders ahead of the new season.
The Arabian Gulf League champions cruised to a 12th top-flight title, sealing the crown with three rounds to spare. Finishing nine points better off than their nearest rivals, they outscored everyone bar Al Jazira, while they also boasted the division’s meanest defence. Such was Al Ain’s dominance, they could even cope without Omar Abdulrahman and Asamoah Gyan for long periods.
So, how do they improve on that? Well, a few tweaks are required, especially since they expect to defend their title and challenge for the Asian Champions League, the tournament that remains their No 1 priority. With that in mind, Al Ain are searching for upgrades on Miroslav Stoch and Jires Kembo Ekoko. Stoch’s loan deal has not been made permanent despite his initial fine performances. Kembo Ekoko, meanwhile, is deemed not talented enough to make a difference on the continent. Al Ain have been linked with Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and Ryan Babel, the former Liverpool forward who is plying his trade in Turkey.
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Second place in the Arabian Gulf League was not enough to keep Eric Gerets in the dugout and the club’s failure to maintain a challenge for the title has prompted significant change at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Abel Braga, the Brazilian who led Jazira to the league and President’s Cup double in 2011, has reprised his role, while Thiago Neves has already been secured as a replacement for Manuel Lanzini.
The former Al Hilal playmaker Neves shone during two stints in Saudi Arabia and is expected to light up the UAE top flight, too. He also knows Braga well having spent a season with him at Brazil’s Fluminense. Gervinho, the Ivorian forward at Roma, is expected to follow, taking Jonathan Pitroipa’s place in the squad. Jazira’s Achilles heel last year was their defence, the worst in the division bar the relegated sides. Fares Juma will arrive from Al Ain and should form a sturdy partnership with veteran Basheer Saeed, but anticipate more Emirati reinforcements to come.
A hugely disappointing Arabian Gulf League title defence found root in shortages up front, when the 2013/14 champions failed to tie down a top-class striker in either transfer window. Eventually finishing seventh, Ahli scored 35 goals, the worst of the division’s top eight teams.
Not surprisingly, that forms their focus this summer. Demba Ba, the former Newcastle United and Chelsea striker, and Hull City’s Nikica Jelavic are reported targets, although both seem set for Turkey. Carlos Munoz has left on loan to Chile’s Santiago Wanderers, while Al Nasr-bound Luis Jimenez’s contract was not renewed.
Subsequently, Ahli are even lighter in attack, even though they will provide Ciel the opportunity to prove his recovery from last season’s leg break. They are also open to offers for Oussama Assaidi. With the Asian Champions League quarter-finals to contest in August and a bid to reclaim their league crown beginning then too, Ahli aim to make a statement in the market. Everton Ribeiro and Kwon Kyung-won remain key, so expect two high-profile signings to come. Shakhtar Donetsk’s Luiz Adriano fits the bill.
After an ultimately frustrating finish to a season that originally promised much, Wahda have sought to make the changes to guarantee there is no repeat. Sami Al Jaber’s short reign seemed to pave the way for Oman national team coach Paul Le Guen to succeed him, however, news leaked of his imminent appointment and forced the Frenchman to U-turn.
Wahda then announced Javier Aguirre as their new coach. The experienced Mexican will have several new signings to integrate into the squad, with Brazilian midfielder Denilson arriving from Sao Paulo this week to finalise a three-year deal. He takes the place of Adil Hermach.
Sebastian Tagliabue and Hussain Fadel have been retained, leaving Damian Diaz’s future uncertain. Aguirre is thought to have requested a playmaker instead, which has reportedly opened the door to an audacious move for Jorge Valdivia. A one-time star with Al Ain, the Palmeiras attacking midfielder is with the Chile national team at the Copa America. He is expected to make a decision on his next destination after the tournament.
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Published: June 24, 2015 04:00 AM