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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - An ADNOC Pro League campaign for the ages is over.
Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club confounded pre-season doubts to secure a first top-flight title since 2017’s merger, while promoted Dibba Al-Fujairah and long-suffering Al-Dhafra face First Division League football next term.
Plenty else happened along the way. Here are Arab News’ highlights from an unforgettable 2022-23.
He didn’t end the season as champion, but no one can doubt Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba’s status as a Pro League great.
The Al-Ain hit man stormed to a second consecutive Golden Boot with 28 goals from 26 runouts. Only a trio of these were penalties — nearly half (13) of second-placed Ali Mabkhout’s 27-goal tally — came from the spot.
Laba was also this term’s clutch performer, with 10 strikes coming versus top-half sides. There were also matchweek two’s “super hat-trick” against Dhafra, a burgeoning chemistry with Morocco winger Soufiane Rahimi and a long list of memorable celebrations.
This was a special season, from a very special player.
One man can change everything.
This is exactly what happened at Shabab Al-Ahli when they adroitly identified Leonardo Jardim as the boss to transform them from serial cup winners into top-flight champions.
Initial teething problems after a quiet start to the summer transfer market and opening 2-0 defeat to red-hot favorites Sharjah soon dissipated. Jardim’s paternal nature and proven history of incubating elite talent — Kylian Mbappe at Monaco, for starters — were key.
UAE full-back Ahmed Jamil, Uzbekistan midfielder Azizjon Ganiev, Brazilian forward Igor Jesus and UAE prospect Yahya Al-Ghassani (more on him later) all responded with landmark campaigns.
His tactical acumen also, critically, ensured superior head-to-head records against second-placed Al-Ain and third-placed Al-Wahda.
This was the electrifying season UAE football had long awaited from Yahya Al-Ghassani.
Ample hype at Wahda and for the opening 18 months of his then-fitful return to Rashid Stadium went unfulfilled amid a lack of faith from successive managers and repeat inability to make the most of chances sent his way.
Something clicked, however, in this season for the lightning-quick forward, blessed with grace and imagination in possession. Jardim empowered him with belief and elite know-how, while growing maturity at 25 years old puts him in the perfect position to make the most of this wisdom.
A career-best seven goals and four assists from 23 appearances were topped off by the winning goal at Baniyas, which secured the title.
Next winter’s AFC Asian Cup should be his stage.
Miralem Pjanic, Jason Denayer, Paco Alcacer, Andriy Yarmolenko, Allan, Achraf Bencharki and many more — last summer’s transfer market was a wild one in ADNOC Pro League.
Yet, the standout addition came from outside this exalted group.
Few headlines were generated when promoted Al-Bataeh added Lourency to their lengthy list of additions. The ex-Goztepe winger produced 13 strikes in 26 matches, largely cutting inside from the left flank.
This was seven more than any teammate. His goals were also worth 13 points, equating to 61.9 percent of his employer’s tally.
Bataeh would have headed straight back down without him.
Kostas Manolas’ stint at Sharjah began with a viral leaked video of him scarpering when growled at by a lion upon his unveiling — and didn’t improve from there.
The Greek center-back would soon produce a cataclysmic display against Mabkhout’s Al-Jazira, featuring a wayward back pass and slack marking. He’d then end the campaign in and out of the side, as an inability to reach his physical peak became glaring.
In short, the 31-year-old looked well short of the colossal figure who’d claimed 2018’s famous “Romantada” against Barcelona.
Al Bataeh 1-1 Ajman on March 31 would, ostensibly, appear a curious choice.
Yet, this was an utterly remarkable fixture.
Anatole Abang and Walid Azaro exchanged sharp finishes on either side of half-time. So far, so normal.
But this contest would explode past the hour mark.
Saeed Suwaidan was shown red for Bataeh on 63 minutes, superb Ajman playmaker Firas Ben Larbi witnessed two identikit penalties saved by Zayed Al-Hammadi after converting all his previous efforts in 2022-23 and another dismissal would follow for substitute Hamad Mohamed in a breathless match from which Bataeh finished with nine men.
It was, largely, a season to forget for Dhafra and their veteran anchorman Sultan Al-Ghaferi.
His defensive-screening powers at 36 years old, certainly, looked on the wane when the Western Knights conceded a staggering 64 times in 26 games. But he was the unlikely progenitor of this term’s finest goal.
Goalkeeper Ali Khaseif was the victim when his former UAE and Jazira colleague unleashed a lob of thunderous power and punishing accuracy from within his own half. A strike so pure it is worthy of long recollection.
Most encouraging sight
Stands packed with fans and resonating with noise defined a season in which bold steps were matched with increased interest.
Both Bur Dubai derbies between Wasl and Nasr, Jazira’s grandstand fixtures with Sharjah and Al-Ain and many others were elevated by supporters throwing their weight behind the combatants.
May this be the start of a more engaged era.
Where to begin with assessing Sharjah’s season?
Alcacer, Pjanic, Manolas and UAE regular Majed Hassan were added to an already formidable squad, led by ceaseless trophy hoarder Cosmin Olaroiu. There appeared no other destination for the title.
Yet, this star-studded XI contrived to trundle home seventh, 14 points off winning pace. Some of the division’s most dismal football was regularly showcased by them, too.
On the other hand, successes in 2021-22’s delayed President’s Cup final, 2022’s rescheduled UAE Super Cup and this season’s President’s Cup added three more entrants to Sharjah’s trophy cabinet. It could be four, with the semifinals versus Jazira to come in the ADIB Cup.
Is success ultimately measured in silverware or finishing position when heavyweights go on significant spending sprees? A question for Sharjah’s board to ponder, throughout the off-season.
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