After 208 days, and September’s last-minute postponement, competitive football is back in the UAE with Thursday’s Arabian Gulf Cup openers.

Action was originally meant to begin on September 3, only for authorities to call a halt “until next October” 24-hours prior. Anticipated new start dates were then announced last week amid stringent medical protocols related to coronavirus and continued absence of supporters, with the tournament getting under way now and the Arabian Gulf League following on October 16.

A new format is in place for the AG Cup in 2020/21, with the group stages gone and a knockout format applied from the start. The imminent first legs – with the deciders to come early next month – will take place without holders Al Nasr and 2018/19 top flight champions Sharjah because they have byes until the quarter-finals, while many leading players miss out because of call-ups.

Hatta v Bani Yas and Ittihad Kalba v Al Jazira are Thursday’s early games at 18:30, with Fujairah v Ajman to follow at 21:00. Friday’s fixtures are headlined by star-studded Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club – for whom Brazilian midfielder Carlos Eduardo could make a domestic debut after his high-profile switch from Al Hilal – meeting Al Dhafra and Al Ain hosting Khor Fakkan in the early matches, before Al Wahda v Al Wasl rounds off the weekend.

“Finally, we can talk about the beginning of the season after a long pause, as you know due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said new Bani boss Daniel Isaila. “We know that it will not be an easy return as the team needs more time to reach the highest- possible readiness.”

Moves to curb the spread of COVID-19 forced March’s cessation of the AGL with seven rounds remaining and ultimate cancellation of 2019/20 by June.

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