x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Ahmed Khalil and Co give the UAE reason for optimism at Olympics

The UAE striker put in an impressive performance as Al Ahli won the Etisalat Cup with four Olympians in their starting line-up.

Grafite and Ahmed Khalil celebrate Al Ahli's Etisalat Cup final victory. Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper
Grafite and Ahmed Khalil celebrate Al Ahli's Etisalat Cup final victory. Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper

Not so long ago, the presence of Ismail Matar's name on a UAE team sheet would have represented this country's only hope.

Judging by the form of a clutch of London-bound Olympians in last night's Etisalat Cup final, however, he now has plenty of chums with whom to share the burden of national expectation.

Matar, who made yesterday's shortlist for the UAE's Games squad for London later this summer, carried Emirati football for much of the past decade.

However the UAE does a good line in likely lads these days. Most notably Ahmed Khalil was imperious for an Al Ahli side that included four potential Olympians in their starting XI last night.

It has often been said the UAE's brightest talent is stunted by the overabundance of imported players in key positions among the leading clubs.

Khalil has not always been a guaranteed starter for Ahli. Even for this final, he was deprived the striker's role in which he initially rose to prominence, with Grafite, the club's Brazilian captain, stationed furthest forward on his own.

However, the roving remit he was granted from the right flank by his manager Quique Sanchez Flores suited him perfectly against Al Shabab.

He was everywhere. Midway through the first half, he tracked back to win the ball in Ahli's right-back position with a committed sliding tackle, took it up field, and blazed a long-range shot just over.

Then in the second he clipped a trademark free kick, the type of which went a long way to securing the UAE's place at the Games, just wide of the post.

Khalil's talent has never been in doubt, but he also presented evidence of growing maturity by hauling Luis Antonio Jimenez away from unnecessary confrontation after Ahli were awarded an unlikely penalty.

Mahdi Ahli, the coach of the Olympic team, will be hopeful that 110 minutes in sapping heat will have no lasting effects for his go-to forward.

As preparations for the Games go, the small contingent of would-be Olympians will have gained little from this game. In terms of acclimatising for the challenges ahead, it was like getting ready for an Arctic expedition by doing a couple of laps of a jacuzzi.

For a start, there was the weather. With a 7.45pm kick off in the heat of early summer, the players would have been better served having a lie down rather than a warm up.

In contrast, temperatures in London "soared" to 26°C yesterday. Most Pro League players probably do not even have the air-con that low in their cars.

At least the ground staff doused the pitch with one huge sprinkler just before the start. The resultant film of moisture on the pitch was far more representative of British summer time.

Furthermore, the UAE can expect to be playing in front of a crowd in excess of 80,000 when they face Great Britain at Wembley at the end of July.

But the Maktoum Stadium - capacity 10,000 - was only around two-thirds full last night.

Sadly, the relatively meagre crowd - for a cup final involving two next-door neighbours who had only had to travel from the other side of Dubai Creek - is indicative of the low regard in which this tournament is held.

It is not for want of trying. Short of giving away a few Ferraris as inducements, or inviting Justin Bieber to do a pre-match singalong, the organisers could not have done much more to make the final of UAE football's "other" cup competition seem attractive. Some were standard tactics.

Outside the ground there was a glorified Beat the Goalkeeper competition before the game. Then there was the regulation half-time raffle.

Others were surreal, such as the Emirati marching band playing football songs on the bagpipes.

The match ball was delivered by a parachutist, which has been done before. At a match in Al Ain recently, the delivery ended up in the stands rather than the field.

This time, the flying postman did not so much miss the mark as got too close to it, getting the cameraman filming his arrival tangled up in the rigging off his chute in the process.

As opening ceremonies go, it was anything but Olympian. Happily for the UAE, though, there are signs the talent is starting to outweigh the gimmicks.

pradley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE