Qatar Stars set to shine

Saturday sees the long-awaited restart of the Qatar Stars League. Al-Gharafa will be out to defend the title they have won for the last two years but can expect stiff competition, not least from the other top sides, who have made significant signings in an attempt to wrest the title from the Doha-based club.

Pre-season transfer activity saw the arrival of several big names despite the Qatar FA reducing the number of permitted foreign players from six to four. As this number must include at least one player from Asia (in accordance with the AFC's 3+1 rule), a higher number of transfers have involved individuals from the continent. runs the rule over the Qatar league on the eve of the new season.

The champions
Al-Gharafa have seen a number of changes this season, beginning with their backroom staff. Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta, who led the team to two successive titles and the Emir of Qatar Cup, has left to be replaced by Caio Junior, formerly of Japanese League outfit Vissel Kobe.

Their major signing this year was that of Brazilian dead-ball specialist Juninho Pernambucano, who joins from French club Lyon where he won seven consecutive league titles. Just as importantly, the Doha club managed to hold on to three of their leading players, Brazilian striker Clemerson, Moroccan midfielder Otmane El Assas and Younes Mahmoud, who led Iraq to victory at the 2007 Asian Cup.

The contenders
It is widely felt that Al-Gharafa's biggest challenge will come from 11-time champions Al-Sadd. Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroui joined them at the end of last season and they have retained the services of their Brazilian goal machine Felipe Jorge, now in his fifth season at the club, as well as the Omani defender Mohamed Rabia.

The club have made two signings, with Brazilian Leandro Da Silva joining from Gamba Osaka and Alfonso Alves, who top-scored in the Dutch Eredivisie while at Heerenveen, arriving from Middlesbrough.

The other contenders are expected to be Al-Rayyan, who have enlisted former Al-Gharafa tactician Paqueta as coach as they try to win their first title for 15 years. Ivorian midfielder Amara Diane and Brazilian defender Marcelo Tavares stay with the club, which has also brought in highly rated Guinean striker Pascal Feindouno on loan from Al-Sadd and Australian Danny Allsopp from Melbourne Victoria.

The best of the rest
Umm-Salal are being tipped as dark horses once again, having consistently upset the big teams since their promotion to the top flight in 2006. The club finished third in the league for the past three seasons, won the Emir of Qatar Cup in 2008 and are also through to the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions league. Umm-Salal began the season in fine style with a victory in the Sheikh Jassem Cup, the prelude to the league championship. Moreover, they have recruited Davi Silva, a Brazilian striker from J-League side Nagoya Grampus Eight, and retained last season's top scorer in the league, Magno Alves, as well as Aziz Ben Askar and Mohamed Husain.

Qatar Sports Club, for their part, hope to mount a serious challenge to the big clubs under the leadership of Brazilian coach Sebastiao Lazaroni, while Al-Arabi, winners of five titles in the 1990s, have reappointed Geraldo Pereira in an attempt to restore former glories.

Players to watch
A number of new players will come under the spotlight this season, none more so than Juninho Pernambucano, who gave glimpses of what Al-Gharafa fans can expect in the Sheikh Jassem Cup. Umm-Salal's Brazilian striker Davi Silva is expected to form a dangerous partnership with last season's top scorer Magno Alves.

Other foreign recruits include the Algerian Rafik Saifi, who joined Al-Khor from Lorient in France, Belgian international Tom Caluwe now with Al-Wakrah, and Brazilian defender Dennis Souza, who moved to Al-Sailiya from Barnsley.

Have your say
Will Al-Gharafa make it three in a row or will Al-Sadd, Al-Rayyan or Umm-Salal have something to say on the matter? Will there be a surprise from one of the other clubs? Click on 'Add your comment' and let us know.