How this week could define the Arabian Gulf League title race

Football’s best leagues are defined by their top-of-the-table rivalries

Graham Ruthven
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Football’s best leagues are defined by their top-of-the-table rivalries. La Liga has the eternal tussle between Barcelona and Real Madrid, whilst the Premier League is a mesh of contests between Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and this season Leicester City. The Arabian Gulf League might not have anything of that stature, but this season has thus far witnessed an almighty title fight.

The 2015/16 campaign was already a compelling one before Sunday’s clash between Al Ain and Al Nasr. Afterwards, however, the championship race had taken a further twist, with the incumbent champions dropping points in a 1-1 draw at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium. Cosmin Olaroiu and his Al Ahli players must have watched with grins on their faces.

Subsequently, the gap at the top of the Arabian Gulf League stands at three points between Al Ahli and Al Ain with just four rounds of fixtures left to play. For the latter time might be running out, and the clock could count down on Thursday when the two sides at the summit of the standings meet directly.

The title will either be effectively clinched, should Al Ahli win to open up a six point advantage, or the race will be blown wide open again, in the event of an Al Ain victory, drawing them level with their closest rivals. This week promises to be a defining one in the Arabian Gulf League season.

Olaroiu remains coy

Yet Olaroiu remains coy on whether Thursday’s clash will decide the destination of the championship trophy. “We still have a long way to go after the game against Al Ain,” the Romanian said after his side’s win over Al Jazira. “We are happy to return with full points ahead of an important match coming up (against Al Ain).” His low key comments don’t illustrate the gravity of the upcoming fixture.

Fundamentally, Al Ahli have found their edge in the title race this season through their superior attacking prowess. They have notched 51 times in just 22 outings, making them the most potent force in Emirati football right now. Against Al Ain Olaroiu will surely instruct his side to do as they have done all season long - attack.

In Brazilian Lima and Senegalese international Moussa Sow Al Ahli have two of the most inherently dangerous forwards in the Gulf game. Al Ain will have to be at their defensive best if they are to hold both attackers at arm’s length, and even then it might not be enough to keep them out.

Of course, Al Ain have their own attacking threat, with Douglas finding the net seven times so far this season. Additionally, with Omar Abdulrahman on the pitch Zlatko Dalic’s side can call upon arguably the finest playmaker in the Asian game to create an opening, even when the game is going against his side. Big players decided big games and Abdulrahman is one of the biggest players UAE has to offer right now.

“We should win every game,” Al Ahli’s Habib Fardan said just a few weeks ago when just a single point separated his team from Al Ain. “We cannot lose any games.” True to his word, the Dubai side have yet to lose a game, although they have played only once, beating Al Jazira on the road at the weekend.

But for all the attacking talent that will be on show in Thursday’s season-defining clash it could still turn out something of a conservative affair. Both Al Ahli and Al Ain boast the two best defensive records in the country, conceding just 18 and 20 respectively over 22 matches. Such solidity could set a tone for what is witnessed at Rashed Stadium this week.

Regardless of what kind of game materializes the ultimate outcome of the 2015/16 Arabian Gulf League season will be clearer. Although given the way this campaign has progresses so far, that’s not to say that there will necessarily be a clear winner.

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