UAE Pro League rich in renewed promise kicks off Friday

UAE Pro League rich in renewed promise kicks off Friday
Reigning champions Al-Ain are predicted to retain their UAE Pro League title. (Twitter: @alainfcae_en)
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Updated 01 September 2022

UAE Pro League rich in renewed promise kicks off Friday

UAE Pro League rich in renewed promise kicks off Friday
  • With likes of Ukrainian forward Andriy Yarmolenko joining reigning champions Al-Ain, Sharjah adding Spanish predator Paco Alcacer, league has rarely had such star quality

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.


Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16

Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16
Morocco's goalkeeper Yassine Bounou holds the ball during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match against Croatia. AFP
Updated 10 sec ago

Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16

Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16
  • Regragui brings back goalkeeper Yassine Bounou following his absence from Sunday’s win over Belgium in Group F

DOHA: Morocco coach Walid Regragui made two changes to his starting line-up as his team bid to clinch their place in the World Cup last 16 against already-eliminated Canada on Thursday.
Regragui brings back goalkeeper Yassine Bounou following his absence from Sunday’s win over Belgium in Group F.
He has also made an attacking change in midfield, with Abdelhamid Sabiri coming in for Selim Amallah.
Canada coach John Herdman has made four changes for his team’s final game of the tournament following defeats to Belgium and Croatia.
Mark-Anthony Kaye comes into midfield for his first start of the tournament while Sam Adekugbe, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan Osorio have also been named in the starting line-up.
Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies has been pushed into a more advanced role as Canada aim to thwart Morocco’s qualification bid at the Al Thumama Stadium.
Morocco, who are second in Group F with four points, need only a draw to be assured of a place in the knockout rounds.
Teams:
Canada (3-4-3)
Milan Borjan; Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria; Sam Adekugbe, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio, Junior Hoilett; Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan
Coach: John Herdman (ENG)
Morocco (4-3-3)
Yassine Bounou; Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saiss (capt), Noussair Mazraoui; Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahi, Abdelhamid Sabiri; Youssef En-Nesyri, Sofiane Boufal, Hakim Ziyech
Coach: Walid Regragui (MAR)
Referee: Raphael Claus (BRA)


I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe

I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe
Portugal's defender Pepe (front) kicks the ball in front of Uruguay's forward Darwin Nunez during the Qatar World Cup. AFP
Updated 5 min 27 sec ago

I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe

I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe
  • Pepe suffered a knee sprain in early October and made his return as a substitute for his club Porto in their final match before the World Cup on November 12
  • “I can’t say if it’s the last World Cup that I will play,” said Pepe

DOHA: Veteran Portugal defender Pepe admitted on Thursday he lost sleep before the World Cup because he was worried he would miss the tournament through injury.
The 39-year-old became the third-oldest outfield player to feature at a World Cup on Monday, starting for the first time in almost two months in the 2-0 win over Uruguay.
Pepe suffered a knee sprain in early October and made his return as a substitute for his club Porto in their final match before the World Cup on November 12.
“When I had the injury, I couldn’t sleep to be honest,” Pepe told a press conference, a day before his team play South Korea in their final Group H match.
“I couldn’t sleep because I wanted to recover as soon as possible and play in another World Cup, to contribute to my national team, to achieve victory.
“So the journey seemed very long, but it is now over.
“I have to look ahead, to look forward with objective of doing the best I can to secure a win.”
Portugal have already qualified for the last 16 but can guarantee top spot if they win or draw against South Korea on Friday.
Danilo Pereira started at center-back alongside Ruben Dias in the first game but fractured three ribs in training, allowing Pepe to step in and produce a strong display to shut out Uruguay.
He said even after 130 appearances he was still enjoying playing for his country.
“I can’t say if it’s the last World Cup that I will play,” said Pepe.
“I am here to enjoy the tournament. It’s a privilege to do what I love, to play football.”
Portugal have one of the stronger squads at the tournament, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva.
However, Pepe believes that talent alone will not be enough to earn Portugal their first World Cup trophy.
“We have several ingredients, and if we don’t put all the ingredients together, as our coach has said, (it doesn’t work).
“If we prepare a salad, you can’t have tomato on one side and onion on the other side, you have to put them all together.
“We have a high-quality national team, but unless we work very hard, respect our opponents and do what our coach says, we won’t benefit so much from this quality.”


Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash

Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash
Belgium's forward Eden Hazard attends a press conference at Salwa Beach, southwest of Doha. AFP
Updated 13 min 40 sec ago

Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash

Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash
  • The Real Madrid forward was left out of the XI as one of four changes from the team which started the surprise 2-0 defeat by Morocco last weekend

DOHA: Belgium coach Roberto Martinez dropped captain Eden Hazard to the bench for his side’s crucial World Cup game against Croatia on Thursday.
The Real Madrid forward was left out of the XI as one of four changes from the team which started the surprise 2-0 defeat by Morocco last weekend.
The Belgians played down media reports of an altercation between senior players, including Hazard, earlier this week, with Martinez calling the rumors “fake news.”
Belgium have to beat 2018 runners-up Croatia in their final Group F match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium to be sure of qualification to the last 16.
Martinez also gave in-form Brighton attacker Leandro Trossard and veteran winger Dries Mertens their first starts of the tournament.
Leander Dendoncker replaced the suspended Amadou Onana in midfield.
Striker Romelu Lukaku was again only fit enough for a place on the bench after making a brief substitute appearance against Morocco.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic named an unchanged starting line-up after the impressive 4-1 victory over Canada left them only needing to avoid defeat against Belgium to go through.
Morocco take on already-eliminated Canada simultaneously in the other last Group F game, knowing a point would secure a place in the knockout phase for the first time since 1986.
Starting line-ups:
Croatia (4-3-3)
Dominik Livakovic; Josip Juranovic, Dejan Lovren, Josko Gvardiol, Borna Sosa; Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic; Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric, Marko Livaja
Coach: Zlatko Dalic (CRO)
Belgium (4-3-3)
Thibaut Courtois; Thomas Meunier, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Timothy Castagne; Axel Witsel, Leander Dendoncker, Kevin De Bruyne (capt); Yannick Carrasco, Leandro Trossard, Dries Mertens
Coach: Roberto Martinez (ESP)
Referee: Anthony Taylor (ENG)


Saudi Arabia exits World Cup with newfound confidence

Saudi Arabia exits World Cup with newfound confidence
Updated 4 min 54 sec ago

Saudi Arabia exits World Cup with newfound confidence

Saudi Arabia exits World Cup with newfound confidence
  • With Herve Renard motivating the team in his emblematic white shirt on the sidelines, Saudi Arabia proved tough to beat
  • Performance could also help promote a possible joint bid by Saudi Arabia with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup

LUSAIL, Qatar: From a generational-defining win over Lionel Messi and Argentina to the recent reports that Cristiano Ronaldo could soon be on his way to play soccer in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has caused a sensation at the World Cup.
The Green Falcons have nothing to be ashamed about after being eliminated following a 2-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday.
The second-lowest ranked team in the tournament at No. 51 — one spot behind host Qatar — and ahead of only 61st-ranked Ghana, Saudi Arabia was competitive from start to finish at the first World Cup in the Middle East.
“We did our best. Today it was more difficult for us,” said Hervé Renard, Saudi Arabia’s French coach. “But we don’t have to forget what we did together.”
The Saudis opened with a surprising 2-1 victory over Argentina and also played solidly in a 2-0 loss to Poland before conceding two second-half goals to Mexico to finish last in Group C.
Salem Al-Dawsari, the team’s star No. 10, pulled a goal back in added time, before the Saudi players bent over on the field at the final whistle in prayer and then stood up to applaud their fans.
Strong goalkeeping from Mohammed Al-Owais prevented Mexico from scoring another goal — which could have sent the South Americans through to the round of 16. Instead, it was Argentina and Poland who advanced in the most wide-open group of the tournament.
With Renard motivating the team in his emblematic white shirt on the sidelines, Saudi Arabia proved tough to beat with a team featuring all 26 players based at home.
The fact that none of the Saudis play abroad may have been a surprise factor but the reality is that the country’s best players don’t need to go to Europe for rich contracts when they are paid handsomely in the lucrative Saudi league.
A high-paying contract is exactly what could lure Ronaldo to join six members of the Saudi national team at Al Nassr, one of the country’s leading clubs.
The reports linking Ronaldo with Al Nassr come after the five-time Ballon d’Or winner had his contract terminated by Manchester United.
Saudi-owned Newcastle United is also reportedly in the market for Ronaldo.
But whether Ronaldo goes to a Saudi or Saudi-owned club or not, the country’s national team leaves Qatar with plenty of newfound confidence.
The performance could also help promote a possible joint bid by Saudi Arabia with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup.


Indictments requested for Agnelli and others in Juve scandal

Indictments requested for Agnelli and others in Juve scandal
Updated 34 min 21 sec ago

Indictments requested for Agnelli and others in Juve scandal

Indictments requested for Agnelli and others in Juve scandal
  • Former vice-president Pavel Nedved and CEO Maurizio Arrivabene are also named
  • A date for the preliminary hearing to decide whether to indict and proceed to trial is expected to be announced in the next week

TURIN, Italy: The Turin prosecutor’s office has requested indictments of former Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, 10 other former board members, and the club following an investigation into alleged false accounting.
Former vice president Pavel Nedved and CEO Maurizio Arrivabene — who left the club on Monday when Agnelli and the entire board of directors resigned — are also named, as is former Juventus director of sport Fabio Paratici, who has moved to Tottenham.
A date for the preliminary hearing to decide whether to indict and proceed to trial is expected to be announced in the next week.
Juventus maintains “the accounting treatment adopted in the contested financial statements falls within those allowed by applicable accounting principles,” and it has drawn that conclusion “on the basis of a solid set of opinions by leading legal and accounting professionals.”
In a lengthy statement issued by the club, it added: “Juventus remain convinced that they have always acted correctly and intend to assert their reasons and defend their corporate, economic and sporting interests in all forums.”
Prosecutors have been investigating since last year whether Juventus cashed in on illegal commissions from transfers and loans of players. The case is also exploring if investors were misled with invoices being issued for non-existent transactions to demonstrate income that in turn could be deemed false accounting.
The case involves player contracts, transfers and agent dealings from 2018-20.
At the start of the pandemic, Juventus said 23 players agreed to reduce their salary for four months to help the club through the crisis. But prosecutors claim the players gave up only one month’s salary.
Turin prosecutors have also apparently discovered more secret payments to former player Cristiano Ronaldo that were not reported by the club.
Juventus are listed on the Milan stock exchange, which also opens it to regulatory scrutiny by the CONSOB watchdog. The club CFO, Stefano Cerrato, was caught on phone taps saying that if CONSOB questioned their moves, they would “razzle-dazzle” the regulators with fancy words, according to leaks to Italian media.
Trading in Juventus shares was flat on Thursday, after a negative 1.16 percent close on Wednesday at 0.2738 euros.