League Focus: UAE (Arabian Gulf League)

In the final part of his look at West Asia’s big four leagues, Martin Lowe (@plasticpitch) looks at the United Arab Emirates’ Arabian Gulf League (AGL) and assesses whether its steady rise in Asia can have a positive effect on their national team ahead of the Asian Cup in January.

West Asian leagues are often tarred with the same brush of their neighbours; big spending on overseas nationals at the detriment of the national team. While spending is relatively high for a league of its size, the Arabian Gulf League is a league that has tended to balance the production of home grown talent well alongside a moderate amount of import.

On the whole, the financial gap between themselves and the Qatar Stars League in particular is quite significant, with the likes of Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan’s whopping $13m a year contract being the exception rather than the rule. An added caveat is the overseas player cap of four opposed to the QSL’s seven, with little or no signs of nationalising imports to manoeuvre round the rules also aids in home grown production.

The country itself is starting to reap the rewards of easing back on importing players from abroad with a slowly improving national team. Consistency in management and long-term vision is generally lacking in this part of the world but the UAE FA have been a shining light in their future planning which they expect further success with in the upcoming Gulf Cup and Asian Cup competitions.

The national team coach, Mahdi Ali worked his way up through the youth set up of Emirati football, leading many of the young Olympic squad of 2012 through to the present senior set up. The likes of Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout have already significant experience in the national team, and are mainstays of the starting line-up despite only just being into their 20s. Recent matches against Paraguay and Norway also illustrates their willingness to test themselves outside their region on a regular basis.

There have been slight problems to deal with however; an Emirati international has yet to leave the AGL for Europe, Abdulrahman; the last to be muted of such an exit, while a lack of domestic goal scoring amongst Emirati strikers domestically is tangible. In a league that swells by the number of goals per game, no Emirati player scored 10 goals last term, the top 14 goal scorers were foreign imports. In this area, AGL clubs are often overly tentative, preferring an overseas signing to bringing through young striking talent, a stark contrast to the defensive side of the game, where UAE are in possession of a wealth domestically experienced players.

Outgoing champions Al-Ahli ran riot at the end of last season winning the title by a clear 16 points, notching up 7 greater victories than their closest competitor. They possess a high percentage of the current national team squad, with the likes of Ahmed Khalil and Ismael Al-Hamadi hoping to make a splash in attack in the coming season. Their impressive overseas contingent includes former Wolfsburg striker Grafite and European journey men Luis Jimenez and Hugo Viana. While title retention is the immediate plan, Asian Champions League (ACL) progression is high on their list of priorities after crashing out in the group stage on their return to the competition this year.

One side who have the ACL down to a tee are Al-Ain, who despite a below par finish last season domestically have made it back to the 2015 edition of the competition after clinching the President’s Cup. While their league form took a hit, Ain strolled through the ACL, where they are due to play in this year’s semi-finals against Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia at the end of the week. Their squad is dominated by the presence of Gyan who scored 29 in 26 league games despite their mid-table finish, but the excellence behind him of Abdulrahman in midfield and the emerging Ismail Ahmed in defence is also propelling them forward. The purchase of flying winger Slovakian Miroslav Stoch is expected to give them an extra dimension both domestically and on the continent.

Outside the two big hitters, a title chase is likely to be contested from UAE’s second footballing city Abu-Dhabi. Al-Wahda made a surprising run for second last term spurred on by 28 goal machine Sebastian Tagliabue and his Argentine colleague Damian Diaz, while honourable support from national team legend Ismail Matar has boosted them back into the ACL for 2015.

They’ll be joined by Al-Jazira who are UAE’s most consistent performers in continental football but have yet to add to their solo domestic crown four seasons ago. Jazira are seen as one of the most likely to spend the cash on recognisable stars, replacing international’s Felipe Caicedo and Abdelaziz Barrada this season with the likes of former Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic and Burkina Faso attacker Jonathan Pitroipa. National team players Mabkhout, goalkeeper Ali Khaseif and midfielder Khamis Esmail are crucial for both club and country with Jazira hoping to get passed the Round of 16 in the ACL, where they’ve exited twice in three years.

Of the rest, Dubai duo Al-Shabab and Al-Nasr just missed out on ACL qualification last term, and will be aiming to edge in this time around. Goal scoring as is usual in UAE fell to their imports, Shabab’s Chilean playmaker Carlos Villanueva works well in tandem with Brazilian target man Edgar while Nasr rely on the engine of former Australian international Brett Holman and former Monaco striker Ibrahima Traore. Former ACL regular Baniyas slipped clear of the pack last season and have brought in Korean international attacker Kim Jung-Woo and former Kuban Krasnodar defender Angel Dealbert to bolster a stronger squad for the upcoming season.

Elsewhere, big plans are afoot at newly promoted Al-Fujairah who have brought in Algerian internationals Hassan Yebda and Madjid Bougherra alongside goal scoring Ivorian Boubacar Sanogo, with many tipping them as the one to break the usual top 6 in the Emirates. Makhete Diop is another name to look out for as he continues to score plenty in the league despite being lower half team, Al-Dhafra.

With the league rolling back into town this Monday, Al-Ain’s conclusion in the ACL, a Gulf Cup to retain in a couple of months and an Asian Cup adventure at the beginning of 2015, it’s clearly an exciting time for Emirati football. With only a few areas still to be ironed out between the league and the national team, the key is to continue on with the constant improvement made thus far. World Cup 2018 feels a way off at the moment, but there is unlikely to be an Asian side feeling in such a positive mood ahead of another qualification cycle.

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