DUBAI: Baniyas, as an area and a football club, could easily go under the radar if you were not paying attention.
Perched on the outer edges of the glistening, modern metropolis that is Abu Dhabi, it flashes by on the drive between the UAE capital and Al-Ain.
But this season the club, up against the might of teams with far greater resources, are on the brink of something truly remarkable.
As the league breaks for the FIFA international window, and with just four games remaining in the Arabian Gulf League (AGL) season, the Sky Blues sit top of the table, one point clear of title favorites Al-Jazira, having won their last five games and suffered just one defeat in their past 15 matches.
For a club that was relegated to the second division just four years ago and coming up against the traditional powerhouses of Emirati football – the likes of Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai, Al-Jazira, and Al-Ain – or more recent juggernauts such as Sharjah, it has been an amazing transformation.
“Since the season started, I pointed them out as the surprise of the season, but honestly not like this,” AGL commentator Pedro Correia told Arab News.
“I thought they were going to be the surprise, but in a way that they would somehow be in the top seven, maybe a fourth place, somewhere around that, but not to this point where they are coming into the last four games in first position. Not even in my best perspective did I think that.”
Neither, as it turns out, did their Romanian coach, Daniel Isaila, appointed at the end of last season to replace German manager Winfried Schafer.
“In discussion with the technical committee the target was to be in the top six in the league, this was the realistic target,” the former Romanian national team assistant said.
What has happened this season was beyond everyone’s expectations, with Isaila transforming the side both in defense – where they now have the best record in the league – and attack, where they are second only to Al-Jazira.
Key to the turnaround in the strike force has been the arrival of a trio of South Americans, headlined by Brazilian sharp-shooter Joao Pedro, who arrived on loan from Al-Dhafra on the eve of the season.
“It was at the last moment the opportunity to sign Joao Pedro. I knew him from Saudi Arabia, I worked there for two years and I knew him from there.
“We had on our list another two strikers and we were negotiating with them, but when the opportunity came to bring him on loan from Al-Dhafra, I said to the administration to find a solution to bring him into our team,” Isaila added.
His signing has proven a masterstroke, with the 27-year-old showing why he is one of the league’s most potent and dangerous strikers, netting 16 times in his 20 appearances this season.
“Since Al-Dhafra I always thought he could be a good addition to any team in the league and for me he’s the key player,” Correia said.
“He’s very complete – he can hold, he can flick, he can get in behind the defense, and they use him in all those ways. He also has good service.
“Magic, flair, and irreverence comes in from the wings. The wingers Baniyas have are very interesting players, most of them are Emiratis, young, full of flair, full of magic, and speed. And they provide lots of good balls into the box for Joao Pedro,” he added.
As full of praise for Joao Pedro as Isaila was, he was quick to point out that the collective unit was key to their success this season.
“He has done a great job, but it’s not only him,” the 48-year-old said. “The whole team has done a great job, because it’s teamwork and this is our power – our Baniyas power. If you look at our games, if you look when we score, the enjoyment and happiness together. This is the image of our club.”
Now four games stand between Baniyas and a historic, maiden AGL title.
In much the same way as Sharjah shocked the league with their title win two seasons ago, a Baniyas triumph would be one for the history books. But with their next match against Sharjah to be followed by another month-long hiatus for the rescheduled AFC Champions League, Isaila knows it will not be easy.
“We have four games, but it’s not easy (to continue momentum) because we stopped the league now for the FIFA calendar. The pressure is high, but not only for us. We have young players, we have players without experience at this level, but we compensate for this with enthusiasm and our spirit.
“If you watch our games, we never give up, and fight until the end and this gives us confidence. Anything can happen. Nothing is easy, but we will fight until the end,” Isaila added.