UAE Pro League rich in renewed promise kicks off Friday

ABU DHABI: The UAE’s Adnoc Pro League is back for a new season, and it could be the most exciting one in years.

Impressive recruitment throughout the 14-team competition has ensured talent, arguably, has not run this deep since the days of Ghanaian icon Asamoah Gyan, debonair Brazilian hit man Grafite, and future World Cup finalist Zlatko Dalic mid-way through the previous decade.

The 2022-23 class is headlined by enigmatic Ukrainian forward Andriy Yarmolenko’s ominous addition at reigning champions Al-Ain, and Sharjah’s snaffling of Spain predator Paco Alcacer. Other stars shine elsewhere.

Here are the main talking points, plus predictions, for a season to savor.

Can anyone bring the Boss down?

A record-extending 14th top-flight title won with a goal difference of plus-40 could have cause for readily satisfied clubs to pause.

Al-Ain, however, are not most clubs, a statement reinforced by the fact they remain the only team to retain the top-flight title in 13 seasons of professionalism.

The searing standard set during last season’s return to form, reflected in unprecedented domination of last week’s annual awards, has been continued by ceaseless coach Serhiy Rebrov.

Celebrated compatriot Yarmolenko’s signature stole headlines globally. Burgeoning Basel midfielder Matias Palacios – a Golden Boy trophy nominee – and FUS Rabat warrior Mehdi Moubarik, reportedly courted by Lille, Porto, and Zamalek, showcase dynastic pretensions.

But their challengers cannot be accused of being supine.

Cosmin leads challenge

A shot across the bows by Sharjah last November witnessed the garlanded return of Romanian talisman Cosmin Olaroiu to the UAE.

Transformation from porous underachievers to hardened contenders was immediate: 42 points were taken from 51 available in the charge from eighth to second.

Yet, abject failure in this year’s AFC Champions League group stage has left a serial trophy hoarder with something to prove.

Lashings of added firepower in Villarreal striker Alcacer should help. Olaroiu’s former Al-Ahli lieutenant Majed Hassan represents the summer’s landmark Emirati deal.

Elite managers are not, however, exclusive to the one club.

Europa League quarter-finalist Carlos Carvalhal has joined Al-Wahda from Braga. His silky midfield is populated by ex-Benfica captain Pizzi, plus Portugal’s Euro 2016 champion Adrien Silva.

The 2020-21 title winners Al-Jazira have kept faith in former Ajax tactician Marcel Keizer, beaten the Middle East’s finest to Morocco forward Achraf Bencharki, and adroitly landed versatile Romanian attacker Florin Tanase.

Meanwhile, Leonardo Jardim, winner of the 2021 AFC Champions League with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, will be hoping to lead Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club to a first top-flight crown since a May 2017 merger. AFC player of the year in 2017 Omar Khribin joins after 36 goal contributions in 35 top-flight runouts for Al-Wahda.

Don’t sleep on chasing pack

Dark horses should not be discounted from entering the fray.

Enterprising Al-Ittihad Kalba pulled off the pre-season’s biggest coup with metronomic Romanian midfielder Alexandru Cicaldau’s loan from Galatasaray. Saudi Professional League veterans Igor Rossi and Filip Kiss further ballast the expanded five-player senior foreign quota for an ambitious outfit, determined to land the first major silverware of their 50-year existence.

Another battling the weight of history is Al-Nasr.

Former Bayern Munich midfielder Thorsten Fink finds himself the seventh permanent manager since May 2017 tasked with ending a curious 36-year title drought.

Baniyas have kept influential Argentines Nicolas Gimenez and Gaston Suarez. They hope Palmeiras’ Rafael Elias will provide a solution to chronic scoring issues.

Saudi Arabia’s World Cup 2018 head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is an inviting appointment by Al-Wasl, for whom prodigy Ali Saleh has intriguing company.

Amoory begins again

Another season, another fresh start for Omar Abdulrahman, this time at Al-Wasl.

Middle Eastern football’s former Golden Boy pitched up in June at Zabeel Stadium. This followed forgettable spells at Al-Jazira and Shabab Al-Ahli since an October 2018 horrific knee injury while on loan at Al-Hilal.

The magician who once mesmerized a continent last registered a Pro League assist in March 2020. But there are engaging partnerships to be forged with Saleh and fit-again UAE forward Fabio De Lima.

UAE football is hungry for an Amoory comeback ahead of this month’s 31st birthday. Hope abounds it might, finally, happen.

Strength in depth

Even the division’s lesser names have recorded encouraging summers.

Khor Fakkan represent shock 2018-19 title winner Abdulaziz Al-Anbari’s first post after the end of his lifelong Sharjah attachment.

Ajman overachieved with Goran Tufegdzic last season, and he will be buoyed by magical Bahraini winger Ali Madan, a standout at relegated Al-Urooba.

Al-Dhafra have stood on the precipice of doom and survived in the last two campaigns. The retention of ex-Brazil U-20 midfielder Lucas Candido could be key, while winger Mohamed Rayhi and striker Mitchell te Vrede – replacing iconic Senegalese target man Makhete Diop – join after middling Saudi stints.

Promoted sides pack punch

The step up from First Division League to UAE Pro League proved too demanding for Al-Urooba and Emirates Club in 2021-22.

Signs abound, however, that Dibba Al-Fujairah and Al-Bataeh are made of sterner stuff. The latter even threaten to be this season’s greatest subplot.

Al-Bataeh have come from nowhere – founded in 2012 and joining the second division for 2019-20 – to prepare for a debut top-flight campaign. The 2015 AFC player of the year Ahmed Khalil and fellow golden generation stalwart Khamis Esmail are among more than a dozen additions.

Champions Dibba were top-flight regulars from 2015-19 and a luxurious new stadium projects an upwardly image.

Montenegro anchorman Aleksandar Scekic and Botswana flyer Kabelo Seakanyeng should be key for retained supremo Zoran Popovic.

Arab News Predictions for the UAE Pro League season:

Champions: Al-Ain. Abundance of quality will count.

Surprise package: Al-Ittihad Kalba. Superb signings signify intent.

Signing of the season: Florin Tanase. Al-Jazira’s conspicuous lack of creativity in 2021/22 has been solved.

Relegated: Dibba Al-Fujairah and Al-Dhafra. A relegation battle too many for Al-Dhafra, Dibba to come up short.

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