Al Ahli's patient approach is paying off

Al Ahli's patient approach may not have looked as if it would pay off earlier in the season but it is now for David O'Leary's side

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That three-year plan at Al Ahli may be yielding dividends two years ahead of schedule. After a stumbling start, the high-profile Dubai club have surged into third place in the Pro League and look fully capable of finishing in the top two.

A season that began with a 2-0 defeat at Al Dhafra in August, and was followed two weeks later by an embarrassing draw against the newly-promoted Kalba, has turned sunnier.

The team that gained international notice by signing Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 Fifa player of the year, and the former Leeds United and Aston Villa manager David O'Leary as coach, have earned 10 points from their past five matches and lie only four points behind Baniyas, who are winless in seven matches.

From the start, O'Leary preached patience. After the draw with Kalba he said: "This is a three-year project and at the end of three years we want to have won everything there is to win in the UAE, and we want to build a team that is built to last."

Ahli are unlikely to win the Pro League this season; leaders Al Jazira are 11 points ahead and have yet to suffer a defeat. But Ahli are in the quarter-finals of the President's Cup and could clinch a 2012 Asian Champions League berth with a second-place Pro League finish.

Their biggest improvements have been on defence; a side that leaked 17 goals in their first nine Pro League games have conceded only one in the past three.

Some of that can be attributed to the back line settling down around Cannavaro, who at the age of 37 has received plaudits from coaches around the league and praise from the club chairman, Abdullah al Naboodah, who said the Italian's impact on the team "has been dramatic".

Some of the improvement may also be about changes at goalkeeper, a position coached by Tony Coton, who held the same job at Manchester United. The 32-year Obaid al Taweela has been replaced by Yousuf Abdullah, 25, and most recently by Saif Yousuf, 22, who was in goal during a 2-1 victory at Al Wahda.

Al Naboodah has expressed satisfaction with the club's attack even though the Burkino Faso forward Aristide Bance has proved a failure and was packed off to Qatar on loan.

Ahli are waiting for results from the brothers Ahmed and Faisal Khalil. They are two of the most promising young Emiratis, but each has only two goals and has been unable to find a regular place in the side.

The lack of scoring punch among the forwards has been mitigated by the performance of the Brazilian midfielder Pinga. Luring him away from Wahda during the summer was perhaps the most significant player signing, weakening the defending champions while giving Ahli the league's top free-kick artist. He has nine of the club's 19 goals this season, including two in the victory over Wahda on Monday.

Al Naboodah felt that Ahli lacked defensive grit in midfield, and the club addressed that during the January transfer window by using the foreign-player slot freed up by the exile of Bance to bring in the Moroccan midfielder Karim el Ahmadi, on loan from the Dutch club Feyenoord. Coincidence or otherwise, Ahli have conceded once in the two matches el Ahmadi has played for Ahli.

The club have an important away match with Al Wasl on Saturday then are home to Kalba. Six points from those two games might vault them ahead of Baniyas.

Where might Ahli be after the three years O'Leary asked for, last summer? If Coton can develop an elite goalkeeper, if one of the Khalil brothers becomes a dependable scorer and if the club hang on to Pinga, they could indeed have won "everything there is to win".