A new season gets underway this Thursday in the United Arab Emirates League, and it promises to be an enthralling contest. Al Wahda, who saw off Al Jazira in the race for last year’s crown, can expect fierce competition again this season. Not only have there been four different winners in the last four campaigns, but the top sides have all been busy strengthening their squads during the close season. FIFA.com runs the rule over the main contenders and previews the season ahead.
The defending champions
Al Wahda go into the new season in upbeat mood, not least because they will be representing the UAE at the FIFA Club World Cup on home soil in December. The man charged with overseeing their title defence is Romanian Laszlo Boloni, who took over from Josef Hickersberger when the Austrian left to coach Bahrain's national team. Al Wahda’s preparations for the new season included a tour of Germany, where they enjoyed a confidence-boosting 1-0 win over Hoffenheim. However, the Abu Dhabi side suffered a setback last Friday when they were beaten in the Super Cup by current President’s Cup holders Emirates Club, who were relegated from the top flight last season.
The title contenders
Perennial contenders Al Jazira will be striving to make up for the disappointment of finishing second for the last three seasons. In their favour, the club have a strong squad under the tutelage of respected Brazilian coach Abel Braga as they continue their quest for a first ever league title. They will nevertheless face stiff competition from Al Ahli, who have enlisted former Aston Villa coach David O’Leary to help them regain the league crown they last won two seasons ago.
With a record nine league titles to their name, Al Ain are another side with lofty ambitions. The country’s predominant outfit at the start of the decade, when they won three successive championships, the club have now gone six seasons without tasting league glory.
The other challengers
Al Wasl will be hoping for a return to the glory years of the 80s and add to their haul of seven league titles. Aiding them in this regard will be Brazilian coach Sergio Farias, who led Korean outfit Pohang Steelers to victory in the 2009 AFC Champions League and a consequent participation in the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi last year.
A compatriot of his, Paulo Bonamigo, occupies the hotseat at Al Shabab, and he will be keen to make amends for a disappointing 2009/10 season and land the club what would be only their fourth league title. Al Nasr, for their part, came perilously close to relegation last term and have turned to Frenchman Laurent Banide, who coached fellow UAE side Dhafra last year and is hoping to repeat the success he enjoyed with Umm Salal and Al Kuwait in Qatar and Kuwait respectively.
As well as securing former FIFA World Player Fabio Cannavaro from Juventus , Al Ahli have brought in Burkina Faso forward Aristide Bance from German outfit Mainz and signed Brazilian striker Pinga from Al Wahda. The defending champions, meanwhile, have bolstered their front line by swooping for Mali striker Modibo Diarra, who impressed last season with surprise outfit Bani Yas.
Al Jazira, for their part, have brought in the Brazilian Bare from Al Ahli and loaned out his compatriot Ricardo Oliveira to Sao Paulo, while Al Wasl’s big summer signing saw the Spaniard Francisco Yeste arrive from Atletic Bilbao.
Moroccan international Soufiane Alloudi returns to Al Ain after a loan spell at Raja Casablanca, although the club have let the Brazilian Emerson go to Fluminense, Chilean Jorge Valdivia to Palmeiras and Korea Republic’s Lee Ho to J-League side Omiya Ardija. Not to be outdone, Sharjah have always been active in the Brazilian transfer market, securing the services of Roberto Brito Luciano from Vasco da Gama.
Players to watch
All eyes will be on UAE international Ahmad Khalil, who shot to fame last season after captaining the country’s U-19 team to victory in the Asian Cup and playing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009. More recently, he was a member of the UAE squad that won the U-23 Gulf Cup. His team-mate Cannavaro can also expect intense scrutiny when he makes his official debut for the club in their opening game.
Al Wahda will again be expecting big things Brazilian marksman Baiano, who top-scored two seasons ago and finished second last time out with 18 goals. Al Jazira, meanwhile, will be hoping Bare can recapture the form that eluded him last season at Al Ahli and also have high hopes for up-and-coming midfielder Subait Khater. Elsewhere, some others to watch this term should include Al Shabab’s Chilean international Carlos Villanueva, Al Wasl’s striker Saeed Al Kas, Al Nasr’s Ecuadorian forward Carlos Tenorio and Sharjah’s Brazilian front-man Anderson.
Have you say
Will there be a new champion in the UAE league this season or can Al Wahda retain their crown?