Pro League midterm report: Al Ahli homework must improve
With the championship on hiatus, John McAuley looks back on how the 14 top-flight teams fared in the first half of the campaign.
Al Ain, 1st place, 34 points
So far, it has been a relative cakewalk for the champions. Eleven victories in 13, with a solitary defeat - the shock opening day collapse to Al Ahli - have lifted Cosmin Olaroiu's side seven points clear. Fears proved unfounded surrounding the summer departures of Yasser Al Qahtani and Ignacio Scocco; the new acquisitions Jires Kembo Ekoko and Alex Brosque have settled well. The standouts remain Asamoah Gyan (21 goals) and Omar Abdulrahman (six goals and eight assists).
The Garden City club will have to contend with Asian Champions League duties and the loss of Gyan to the African Cup of Nations, yet an 11th league title seems a certainty.
Al Jazira, 2nd, 27 points
The arrival of Paulo Bonamigo from Al Shabab represented a shrewd move by the board. However, a month into the season reports of unrest surfaced. High-profile managers in Luiz Felipe Scolari, Dunga and Felix Magath were linked, but a comeback draw against Al Ain sparked six wins and two draws from eight, and Jazira sneaking into second.
Ricardo Oliveira continues last season's fine form, although Bonamigo may need to look next month to replace Ibrahim Diaky, the veteran captain, and Fernandinho, who has failed to emulate the previously prolific Bare - an unenviable task anyway.
The meanest defence in the league, Jazira look the only realistic threat to Al Ain's title procession.
Al Ahli, 3rd, 26 points
A quiet summer in the transfer market was widely applauded, Quique Sanchez Flores preferring to retain the influential foreign stars Grafite, Luis Jimenez and Achille Emana despite each attracting offers outside the UAE.
Grafite, in particular, has excelled, with 19 goals, however the Brazilian will be frustrated his side lie eight points off the summit. The 6-3 thrashing of Al Ain in Round 1 triggered five victories and a draw on their travels, but at home Ahli have been wasteful, dropping 10 points, often from positions of superiority.
Sanchez Flores admits the problem is "psychological" - he will need to ease players' minds if they have designs on catching Al Ain.
Baniyas, 4th, 25 points
The Abu Dhabi club are this season's surprise package, buoyed by the addition of Mohamed Zidan, the prodigiously talented Egyptian, and Nick Carle, the Australian midfielder who arrived on loan from FC Sydney.
Zidan has flitted in and out because of injury, but when employed in attack has underlined his class, often working well with Andre Senghor, his fellow African. The Senegalese forward has 10 in 11 games.
Winning seven of their first 10 matches suggested Baniyas' runner-up finish in 2010/11 could be at least replicated, but heavy defeats to Al Ain and Al Jazira advises Champions League qualification should be their primary target.
Keeping Zidan fit is integral to that.
Al Nasr, 5th, 22 points
Finishing third and second in two campaigns under Walter Zenga, the obvious presumption, if slightly unfair, was Nasr could land a first title in 27 years.
Such faith was reinforced with the club emerging unbeaten from their initial six, challenging fixtures, despite the unsettling departure of key man Mark Bresciano. Yet one win in four has seen Nasr slip down the table.
They certainly have the firepower to arrest the slide and challenge towards the top: Giuseppe Mascara (10) and Bruno Correa (eight) ensure Nasr are the only club with two players in the top-10 scorers.
The pair have missed recent matches, only intensifying their worth.
Al Shabab, 6th, 20 points
Not the best preparation when your manager pens a new contract and then one week later leaves for another club. Yet that is precisely the situation Shabab faced this summer. The club replaced Paulo Bonamigo with Marcos Paqueta. Couple that with the continued absence of Carlos Villanueva, the skilful playmaker, and it is clear where their insipid start found root.
Three defeats in four forced an emergency board meeting, although Paqueta was rightfully backed: Shabab have since been beaten only twice - by the top two teams - winning five on the bounce.
More goals are needed to qualify for the Champions League group stage, but expect a strong second half to the season.
Al Wahda, 7th, 18 points
Much like last season, a flood of injuries have restricted progress at Al Nahyan Stadium, with Ismail Matar recently joining on the treatment table long-term absentees Eric Mouloungui, Mahmoud Khamis and Mohammed Al Shaibah.
The 2009/10 champions have failed to replicate that success, leading to Josef Hickersberger this summer calling time on his tenure as an overhaul of the board was implemented. Branko Ivankovic, the modest Croatian, is now in charge, relying heavily on new signings Papa Waigo (goals) and Srdan Andric (experience).
Waigo has responded by notching eight times, but five defeats in six matches has the Abu Dhabi club's demanding supporters calling, again, for January reinforcements.
Al Wasl, 8th, 17 points
After the reckless reign of Diego Maradona, Bruno Metsu's appointment represented an intelligent one. Vastly experienced within the Arabian Gulf, his new side resisted defeat until meeting the champions in Round 6.
Yet the news in October that Metsu was diagnosed with serious illness clearly affected Wasl, who slumped after the Frenchman stepped down. His replacement, Guy Lacombe, took time to lift spirits, although signs are encouraging.
Emiliano Alfaro (10 goals) and Shikabala have excelled in bursts, but much depends on midfielder Mariano Donda, who missed through injury five matches. Lucas Neill, too, needs to live up to his impressive CV. Wasl have conceded more than they have scored - not enough for a top-four spot.
Dubai, 9th, 16 points
Last season's troubles were illustrated by a penchant for changing coaches, the Al Awir club only narrowly avoiding relegation. So Rene Marsiglia may have considered his brief only temporary, although his new side confounded concerns, losing one of their opening seven games.
The impetus was provided by the goals of Richard Porta, the banished Al Wasl striker, who quickly bagged seven. He is ably supplied by Simon Pierre Feindouno, the gifted Guinean. Yet the problem remains for others chip in - Dubai have the fourth worst tally overall - and consequentially transforming draws, of which there have been seven, into victories. A new partner up front for Porta is a must.
Ajman, 10th, 15 points
It is a case of what might have been for Abdulwahab Abdulqadir's men. Summer moves were reportedly made for Zidan and Shikabala, while Hassan Maatouk, the tricky winger, left for Emirates.
The loss of the playmaker Karim Kerkar for the season's first segment was therefore accentuated, with replacement Abdessamad Oujaki failing to shine. One bright spot, though, has been Founeke Sy. The Malian striker has six goals.
The return of Kerkar next month - sooner than expected - will be key to an improvement in 2013, especially away from home. Ajman have won only once outside the Rashid bin Saeed Stadium.
Al Dhafra, 11th, 15 points
Perhaps no other club than the Western Region outfit exemplifies better the capricious confines of UAE football. Having entrusted Dzemal Hadziabdic, the former Al Ain and Al Shabab coach, to mastermind promotion through the play-offs, Dhafra executed a scattergun approach to summer recruitment, adding 17 players.
Enabled by the productive pairing up front of Makhete Diop and Amara Diane, and the wise head of Abdulsalam Jumaa, they secured Pro League status and then lost only two of nine matches. However, too many draws prompted Hadziabdic's sacking earlier this month, Laurent Banide succeeding him.
Given their potency, relegation is not a concern, although midfield reinforcements are needed.
Al Shaab, 12th, 7 points
Following a bright start after their play-offs promotion - two wins were gleaned from three matches - Sergio Alexandre's side, playing at the borrowed Sharjah Stadium, embarked on an alarming decline that supplied nine defeats.
Piercing the opposition tends not to be a problem, with Rodrigo Vergilio, the Brazilian, bagging seven already in a side that has outscored all but one of the teams in the bottom half. Conversely, they have the league's fourth-worst defence, and January must bring a bolstered backline if a return to Division One is to be avoided. Alexandre was sacked this week; an able successor would be a valuable addition.
Kalba, 13th, 7 points
Division One champions in May, the club look certain to underline their tag as the UAE's yo-yo team.
The confusion that regularly reigns in defence - they have conceded the most goals (45) - is mirrored off the pitch, with Kalba onto their third manager already. Dragan Talajic was sacked after four games, Lotfi Benzarti after seven.
The recruitment of Ze Mario appears a sound one - the Brazilian led Al Wasl to honours in 2007 - however, he must display some astute manoeuvring in the market or it will prove too little, too late. A striker of ability is a necessity: Kalba have the league's fewest goals.
Dibba Al Fujairah, 14th, 4 points
Firmly rooted to the bottom, the modest club will not be enjoying their first appearance in the top tier since 2007.
Until recently, they played their home matches 200 kilometres away in Al Ain, and that helps explain one victory in 13 matches.
Dibba chose to dismiss Marcelo Cabo, the Brazilian coach, and it is difficult to decide if Abdullah Misfir is a fortunate soul for being passed the job.
The former UAE interim manager has, though, conjured one victory since taking over, even if it is camouflaged somewhat by eight defeats. Three points from safety, they can only hope Kalba and Al Shaab do not gather themselves anytime soon.
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Published: December 18, 2012 04:00 AM