Iniesta tops star-studded roster of players and coaches as UAE Pro League season kicks off

All eyes are on Andres Iniesta of Emirates FC as the new UAE Pro League kicks off. (Twitter: @Emirates_FC)
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Updated 17 August 2023
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Iniesta tops star-studded roster of players and coaches as UAE Pro League season kicks off

  • The 2023-24 campaign promises to be just as exciting as previous one, which featured a thrilling three-way battle for the title

The 2023-24 UAE Pro League season kicks off on Friday, and with the likes of legendary Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta and Paraguayan magician Kaku lining up on the pitch, and Netherlands great Frank de Boer and revolutionary South African tactician Pitso Mosimane occupying dugouts, there are ample reasons to believe a repeat of last term’s engrossing campaign is on the cards.

Here are some of the main talking points, plus our predictions, ahead of what seems likely to be another season to savor.

Iniesta’s incredible arrival

It takes something a little bit special for an unheralded, newly promoted side to lead off a season preview. Emirates Club’s refreshingly covert capture of Barcelona legend Iniesta was just that.

How useful a 39-year-old attacking midfielder, who recorded just four goalless J1 League run-outs for Vissel Kobe between February and July this year, will prove to be during what is likely to be a grueling relegation scrap is up for debate. It is not a deal that guarantees the club will avoid a repeat of the 2021-22 season, when they were similarly newly promoted but went straight back down again.

Nonetheless, this is a move that further elevates a competition on the rise. Last season’s impressive growth in attendances and interest can only be boosted by the presence of a universally revered superstar.

The Roshn Saudi League’s unprecedented summer shopping spree has dominated the discourse about Middle Eastern football. When it comes to name recognition alone, however, only Al-Hilal’s signing of Neymar can match the arrival of Iniesta in the region.

New faces, new excitement

ADNOC Pro League viewers were spoiled in last season. A tight, three-way title race and a relegation battle that went down to the wire on the last day made it a season for the ages. There is every chance the new season can go the same way.

At the top, holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club have added Premier League stalwart Luka Milivojevic and Israel forward Mu’nas Dabbur. Three-time Confederation of African Football Champions League winner Mosimane has added his know-how to Al-Wahda’s mix, with former Ajax supremo Alfred Schreuder is motivated to showcase his best at dethroned champions Al-Ain, alongside 2022-23 Saudi top-flight assist leader Kaku.

De Boer has last season’s Europa League winner Karim Rekik in his squad at Al-Jazira, while 2022’s big-spenders Sharjah have added Tunisia’s Firas Ben Larbi as they aim to convert four cup victories into league supremacy.

Swiss center forward Haris Seferovic teaming up at Al-Wasl with Nicolas Gimenez, formerly of Baniyas, and crowd favorite Caio Canedo, re-signed after four unsatisfactory seasons at Al-Ain, whets the appetite at a club striving for glory for the first time since 2006-07.

But the deep reservoir of talent does not end there.

Best of the rest

A number of other clubs also look refreshed. Ajman lost their talisman, Ben Larbi, to Al-Sharjah but gained fellow Tunisia stars Nader Ghandri, a hulking center back who started in Tunisia’s World Cup 2022 victory over his native France, and burgeoning midfielder Haykeul Chikhaoui.

Ajman’s former coach, Goran Tufegdzic, is now at the helm of Al-Nasr, where Italy striker Manolo Gabbiadini and former Spezia star Kevin Agudelo will link up with retained Morocco maestro Adel Taarabt in their bid to cast aside the tag of “perennial underachievers.”

Former Ettifaq forward Youssoufou Niakate could change everything at goal-shy Baniyas, while Mehdi Ghayedi, on loan from Shabab Al-Ahli, aims to regain his sheen under mentor Farhad Majidi at Ittihad Kalba.

‘Golden boys’ get another shot

Iran forward Ghayedi is not the only former “golden boy” with something to prove. Pre-season pictures suggest that a pair of Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year winners are ready to make a renewed impact.

Omar Abdulrahman’s trademark curls have gone as he looks to build on a solid debut campaign with a deeper midfield role at Al-Wasl.

A svelte Ahmed Khalil could be a game changer for Al-Bataeh. The 2015 Asian Footballer of the Year last netted in the Pro League in November 2020 and made only seven appearances last term.

If injury doubts can be consigned to the past, it could make for a brighter future for upstart sides who must wring absolutely everything out of each asset.

Battle at the bottom

Final-day dramatics kept Al-Bataeh in the top flight last season and the club, founded in 2012, have put in work during the summer to avoid a similar fate this time.

New head coach Mirel Radoi stabilized Al-Tai in the Saudi Pro League last season. He’s joined in the UAE by Cape Verde center back Diney and former Shanghai Port playmaker Paulinho. The loss of 13-goal forward Lourency to Khor Fakkan has diminished them, however, while significantly strengthening a potential relegation rival.

Among the newly promoted sides, Emirates require Cameroon battler Franck Kom to add grit and Iniesta lashings of inspiration.

Hatta have already mixed and matched in the transfer market, emerging with a series of foreign captures. They boast contemporary international experience in the form of Sweden midfielder Moustafa Zeidan, Slovakia center back Vernon De Marco, Democratic Republic of Congo midfielder Aaron Tshibola and Kuwait forward Shabaib Al-Khaldi.

Asian Cup casts a long shadow

Another season influenced by international distractions is in store. After the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup comes the rearranged Asian Cup, which begins at the end of this month.

Question marks linger about the UAE’s prospects after their chastening group-stage exit from the Arabian Gulf Cup in January.

Former South Korea and Portugal supremo Paulo Bento was tasked in July with guiding a nation that has lost its way since two successive semi-final runs at Asia’s showpiece event.

Will a goal scorer emerge who can adequately support Ali Mabkhout? His 27 league goals tally last season was eight more than naturalized colleague Fabio de Lima and 18 more than Ittihad Kalba’s uncapped Ahmed Al-Naqbi.

Is there a better option in goal than typical picks Ali Khaseif or Khalid Essa? Will a workable successor to towering center back Ismail Ahmed ever appear?

Bento has four months, and 12 match weeks, to find the answers.

Arab News predictions for the 2023-24 ADNOC Pro League season

Champions: Al-Wahda.

They ended last season strongly and expertly recruited during the summer to secure the services of serial winner Mosimane and Al-Shabab loanee Cristian Guanca, who claimed the 2021-22 trophy with Al-Ain.

Surprise package: Baniyas.

Niakate is the prolific striker they’ve been crying out for.

Signing of the season: Iniesta.

Who else? It’s going to be enthralling to see how he gets on, but…

Relegated: Emirates Club and Al-Bataeh.

Iniesta simply has too much to do for the former, while the latter will fail to build on last term’s great escape.


Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge

Updated 21 May 2024
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Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge

  • “Chelsea FC can confirm that the club and Mauricio Pochettino have mutually agreed to part ways,” Chelsea said in a statement
  • “Thank you to the Chelsea ownership group and sporting directors for the opportunity to be part of this football club’s history,” said Pochettino

LONDON: Mauricio Pochettino has left Chelsea after just one season in charge by mutual consent, the English club announced on Tuesday.
The Blues finished sixth in the Premier League thanks to a fine run toward the end of the season but missed out on Champions League qualification and a trophy.
“Chelsea FC can confirm that the club and Mauricio Pochettino have mutually agreed to part ways,” Chelsea said in a statement.
In just two years under the ownership of an American consortium fronted by LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity group Clearlake Capital, Chelsea have spent over £1 billion ($1.3 billion) on new players.
The vast majority of that was spent on rising stars and Pochettino pointed to a lack of experience and a lengthy injury list for failing to achieve consistent results.
Chelsea lost the League Cup final 1-0 to Liverpool after extra-time and pushed Manchester City all the way before losing in the FA Cup semifinals by the same score.
But there had been signs that Pochettino’s project was coming together in a run of five consecutive wins to end the campaign that ensured Chelsea will be in Europe next season.
They will qualify for the Europa League if Manchester United lose to City in the FA Cup final and the Conference League if the Red Devils shock the English champions.
“Thank you to the Chelsea ownership group and sporting directors for the opportunity to be part of this football club’s history,” said Pochettino.
“The club is now well positioned to keep moving forward in the Premier League and Europe in the years to come.”
Chelsea sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley said: “On behalf of everyone at Chelsea, we would like to express our gratitude to Mauricio for his service this season.
“He will be welcome back to Stamford Bridge any time and we wish him all the very best in his future coaching career.”
Pochettino is the fourth manager to depart under Boehly’s regime after Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Pochettino met Boehly for dinner on Friday before his departure was confirmed after an end-of-season review with Stewart and Winstanley.
The 52-year-old arrived in west London with the task of getting Chelsea back on track after they finished 12th in the 2022/23 Premier League season.
The Argentine had to bed in another influx of new signings as Chelsea broke the British transfer record to buy Moises Caicedo for £115 million.
He suffered a difficult start as they won just three of their opening 10 Premier League games.
But led by the stunning form of Cole Palmer, only City, Arsenal and Liverpool picked up more points than Chelsea in the second half of the season.
According to reports Stuttgart’s Sebastian Hoeness, Girona boss Michel, Ipswich Town’s Kieran McKenna and Enzo Maresca of Leicester are among those in contention to be next in the Stamford Bridge hot seat.
Pochettino began his coaching career at Espanyol before shining in a short spell at Southampton.
That earned him a move to Tottenham, where he established Spurs as regulars at the top end of the Premier League and took the club to a first ever Champions League final in 2019.
Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham just months later before joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, where we won one Ligue 1 title and French Cup in 18 months in charge.


Man United’s Rashford left out of England’s provisional Euro 2024 squad after disappointing season

Updated 21 May 2024
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Man United’s Rashford left out of England’s provisional Euro 2024 squad after disappointing season

  • “These are difficult calls, you are talking about players who are very good players who have been an important part of what we have done,” Southgate said
  • Rashford was arguably the biggest name to be omitted

BURTON, England: Marcus Rashford was left out of England’s provisional squad for the European Championship on Tuesday.
The Manchester United striker has paid the price for a disappointing season at club level and failed to make the cut for Gareth Southgate’s initial 33-man selection.
Jordan Henderson and Reece James were also left out.
“These are difficult calls, you are talking about players who are very good players who have been an important part of what we have done,” Southgate said. “With Marcus, I feel players in the same area of the pitch have had better seasons, it’s as simple as that.”
Rashford was arguably the biggest name to be omitted — especially after enjoying a career-best campaign two seasons ago when he scored 34 goals for club and country.
It has been a different story over the past year when he has managed just eight goals for a United team that suffered their lowest-ever Premier League finish — eighth.
He responded later on Instagram to say he was “Wishing Gareth and the boys all the best” for the Euros.
The squad will eventually be reduced to 26 players on June 8, with the Euros kicking off in Germany on June 14.
Rashford’s United teammate Kobbie Mainoo was selected after an outstanding breakthrough season and Chelsea forward Cole Palmer was also included.
Palmer was likely one of the forward options Southgate referred to when explaining Rashford’s omission after he scored 22 Premier League goals in his first season at Chelsea — a record only bettered by Erling Haaland.
Henderson and James were also notable omissions.
Former Liverpool captain Henderson misses out after his decision to leave Anfield for the Saudi Arabian league last year, while James’ absence comes on the back of an injury-plagued campaign for Chelsea.
Henderson has remained a part of England’s set up despite his controversial decision to join Al-Ettifaq. He left after just six months and completed a move to Dutch giant Ajax, but a muscle injury late in the season convinced Southgate to leave him out.
“Hendo has given himself every chance. The determining factor is the injury he picked up around the last camp. He’s missed five weeks,” Southgate said. “He hasn’t been able to get to the intensity in the games since then.”
James, who missed the Qatar World Cup because of a knee injury, has struggled with his fitness for much of the past season and played only 11 games.
Liverpool’s Jarell Quansah and Curtis Jones were called up for the first time, as well as Crystal Palace midfielder Adam Wharton.
Southgate said United defender Luke Shaw is “up against it” to prove his fitness after an injury-disrupted season.
“This has been as complicated a group as I can remember picking, and we’ve had quite a few complicated ones,” the England manager said.
Squad:
Goalkeepers: Dean Henderson (Crystal Palace), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal), James Trafford (Burnley)
Defenders: Jarrad Branthwaite (Everton), Lewis Dunk (Brighton), Joe Gomez (Liverpool), Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Jarell Quansah (Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United), Kyle Walker (Manchester City)
Midfielders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Curtis Jones (Liverpool), Kobbie Mainoo (Manchester United), Declan Rice (Arsenal), Adam Wharton (Crystal Palace)
Forwards: Jarrod Bowen (West Ham United), Eberechi Eze (Crystal Palace), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Anthony Gordon (Newcastle United), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Bayern Munich), James Maddison (Tottenham), Cole Palmer (Chelsea), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Ivan Toney (Brentford), Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)


Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta

Updated 21 May 2024
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Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta

  • On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern
  • The biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that are finishing the season strong.

DUBLIN: Bayer Leverkusen are two games from European soccer immortality.
The new champion of Germany have two cup finals in four days — starting Wednesday in the Europa League against Atalanta — to complete a previously unthinkable unbeaten season in domestic and continental competition.
On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern team that finished 13th in the second division, not so far from falling into relegation playoffs.
And so, the biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that are finishing the season strong.
It feels fitting because the Europa League has been a regular drama for Leverkusen.
Three times in six games in the knockout rounds the team were 2-0 down deep into the second half and still behind entering stoppage time: In both round of 16 games against Qarabag and in the semifinals return leg against Roma.
In another streak-saving Europa game, at West Ham in the quarterfinals, Leverkusen were set to advance on aggregate score yet needed an 89th-minute goal by wing-back Jeremie Frimpong to draw 1-1 and stay unbeaten.
“We don’t want to wait until the last seconds of the game,” said Patrick Schick, whose three stoppage-time goals against Qarabag in March were key to advancing 5-4 on aggregate. “We would like to make it clear, really, earlier.”
Atalanta defender Berat Djimsiti acknowledged Tuesday it was “certainly added motivation” trying to be the team to beat Leverkusen. “They have achieved some extraordinary things this season.”
There have been other stellar teams in European soccer who added the elite Champions League to their domestic league title, unlike Leverkusen playing in the second-tier Europa League.
Still, Manchester United in 1999, Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona in 2011 and Manchester City last year also lost some games and were wealthy clubs whose success could have been expected. Each started their season with established, star-packed teams led by coaches — Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola — who’d already won multiple domestic and European trophies.
This is Alonso’s first full season coaching at the top level. His team were in relegation trouble last season. There was no superstar transfer signing in the offseason.
“For me it’s very special,” the 42-year-old Alonso said last week. “My first title as a coach was the Bundesliga. It was super, it was very special. But a title in Europe would be wonderful and hopefully we will be able to say that.”
Alonso twice won the Champions League as an elegant midfielder, with Liverpool and then Real Madrid, who will play Borussia Dortmund for this season’s Champions League title. That June 1 final at Wembley Stadium is between two teams involved in the failed Super League breakaway in 2021 — Madrid driving it forward, Dortmund declining their invitation.
Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta were nowhere close to being invited to the breakaway three years ago and today represent soccer projects that won respect from neutral fans across Europe.
Both are based in provincial cities, each with more than 100 years of history, reaching surprise peaks. Before this season, they had only ever won three trophies: Atalanta’s Italian cup in 1963 and Leverkusen’s 1988 UEFA Cup — the forerunner of the Europa League — and Germany cup in 1993.
While Leverkusen once lost a Champions League final, to Madrid in 2002, and Atalanta were minutes away from a semifinals place in 2020, neither have felt entitled to European success.
Their modest stadiums in Leverkusen and Bergamo add up to a combined capacity of about 51,000 that could fit into the Dublin venue, formerly Lansdowne Road, that will host them Wednesday. For a showpiece European final, the official limit is 48,000.
Leverkusen and Atalanta do not figure in UEFA research of the top-50 earnings list of European clubs for total matchday income from ticket and hospitality sales.
Two well-run clubs, relying on smart transfer dealings — albeit underwritten, respectively, by pharmaceutical giant Bayer and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca — had combined total revenues last year that added up to about the same $500 million as Manchester City’s player wage bill alone.
Yet both Leverkusen and Atalanta, under coach Gian Piero Gasperini since 2016, play easy-on-the-eye soccer in attack and team-first defense.
“They play one against one on the whole pitch,” Schick said of Atalanta. “Wherever you move, you have one defender behind you so they don’t leave you the space to breathe.”
Atalanta have been a refreshing force under Gasperini and already have a place in the Champions League next season. In any normal year they would be popular first-time European title winners.
What Leverkusen have done is not normal, though, and a legend could be just days from being created.


Salah hints at Liverpool stay, targets trophies next season

Updated 21 May 2024
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Salah hints at Liverpool stay, targets trophies next season

  • “We know that trophies are what count and we will do everything possible to make that happen next season,” Salah posted on social media
  • “Our fans deserve it and we will fight like hell“

LONDON: Mohamed Salah said Liverpool “will fight like hell” to win trophies next season as the Egyptian hinted he will at least see out the final year of his contract at Anfield.
Salah has just 12 months remaining on his deal and has been linked with a move to the Saudi Pro League.
The Reds reportedly rejected a £150m offer from Al-Ittihad for the 31-year-old last September.
“We know that trophies are what count and we will do everything possible to make that happen next season,” Salah posted on social media.
“Our fans deserve it and we will fight like hell.”


Liverpool won the League Cup in Jurgen Klopp’s final season in charge but missed out on the Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League.
Klopp’s departure after over eight years in charge of Liverpool has raised doubts over the futures of a number of star players, who rose to prominence under the German’s reign.
Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold are also entering the final year of their contracts.
Former Feyenoord boss Arne Slot was confirmed as Klopp’s successor by Liverpool on Monday.


Germany’s Kroos to retire from football after Euro 2024

Updated 21 May 2024
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Germany’s Kroos to retire from football after Euro 2024

  • “My career as an active footballer will end this summer after the Euro championship,” Kroos said on Instagram
  • Real said Kroos “will go down in Real Madrid history as one of our club and international football’s greatest legends”

MADRID: Real Madrid’s German international midfielder Toni Kroos announced on Tuesday he will retire from all football after Euro 2024.
“My career as an active footballer will end this summer after the Euro championship,” 34-year-old Kroos, who won the 2014 World Cup with Germany, said on Instagram.
Before the European Championship, Kroos has a chance to win the Champions League with Real for a fifth time when they face Borussia Dortmund at Wembley on June 1.
He also won the Champions League with Bayern Munich before joining the Spanish giants.
Kroos joined Real in 2014 and quickly formed a formidable midfield partnership with Luka Modric.
In a statement on their website, Real said Kroos “will go down in Real Madrid history as one of our club and international football’s greatest legends.”
Kroos has also won the Liga title four times and won the Bundesliga three times with Bayern.
He announced he was quitting international football in July 2021 but reversed his decision in February after talks with Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann, who persuaded him to play on till the Euro 2024 on home soil.
Kroos, who has racked up 108 caps and 17 goals for Germany, was one of the key players when they won the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and scored twice when they inflicted a 7-1 defeat on the host nation in the semifinals.
But four years later he was unable to prevent Germany from crashing out in the group stage in Russia.
He did not play in Germany’s second World Cup group-stage exit in a row at Qatar 2022 but, after making his international return at Nagelsmann’s request, will lead a new-look Germany side at Euro 2024.
“My ambition was always to finish my career at the peak of my performance level,” Kroos said on Instagram.
“I am happy and proud that in my mind I found the right timing for my decision and that I could choose it on my own.”