When Mahdi Ali sits down to pick his starting XI for tonight's friendly against Kuwait, his first home game as the coach of the senior national team, he will be spoilt for choice. He has a wealth of talent in his squad, with healthy competition for every spot … except one.
Right at the top, at the front of his attack, his options, sadly, seem limited, especially in the absence of Ismail Matar, who scored two of the UAE's three goals in their Olympic campaign. As Thursday's match against Japan showed, Mahdi Ali is sorely missing a dependable striker who can convert good team performances into good results.
Ahmed Khalil has looked woefully off colour in recent times. His last goal for the Olympic team in an official match came during the Asian Games, against Uzbekistan, last November. Since then, he has failed to score in six competitive games with the Olympic team. He missed a couple of good chances against Japan as well.
Khalil also failed to find the back of the net for the senior team at the Asian Cup last year as the UAE returned from Qatar without scoring a goal in three games, despite creating the most chances among all the teams and impressing everyone.
Ali Mabkhout, Rashid Essa and Saeed Al Kathiri, the three other strikers in the squad for tonight's match, have had limited opportunities with Khalil being assured of his place in the starting 11.
Nobody doubts Khalil's talents. On ability, he is the best in the land and deserves his place in the squad, but he seems to be lacking in confidence at the moment. The constant media scrutiny, which inevitably follows every failure, will not help his cause. Perhaps, he needs some time off to rediscover his form. A few good games with his club side, Al Ahli, could bring back the Khalil of old.
In the meantime, the coach could cast his net wider and look at someone like Hassan Mohammed, who was the top scorer among Emiratis in the Pro League last season. The 22 year old was a regular starter for Dubai, scoring nine goals in 21 games in the league. He also had six goals in Dubai's Etisalat Cup campaign.
Mabkhout and Al Kathiri, on the other hand, struggled to get regular starts at their clubs. The former made 15 appearances for Al Jazira in the league and Etisalat Cup, scoring three goals, while the latter could manage only 11 games in those two tournaments with Al Wahda.
Their lack of playing time surely hampers their performances on national duty. In comparison, Hassan brings the confidence of regular starts and goals to the table.
Perhaps, playing for a smaller team like Dubai has been one of the reasons for his absence from the national team. His move to Al Nasr this season should help open the door. He was impressive at Dubai, clinical in his finishing and scored some quality goals. If he can maintain those performances under Walter Zenga's guidance, there could be good times ahead for him.
More importantly, it would give Mahdi Ali another option as he prepares the team for the West Asian Championships, scheduled to be held in Kuwait from December 8 to 20, and the Gulf Cup, which will be held in Bahrain from January 5 to 18.
The UAE national team has suffered from a lack of strikers for a long time. Bruno Metsu, Dominique Bathenay and Srecko Katanec have all lamented on this issue without finding any solutions. Remedying it will be at the top of Mahdi Ali's list.
He has just started and will definitely need time. But the issue cannot be ignored for long. If the situation continues, the UAE will continue to impress fans and pundits alike - like they did at the Asian Cup, the Olympics and in Japan last week - but sadly, they will keep returning home empty-handed, with nothing to show for their performances.
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