National team take on Oman in Friday's final in Kuwait City in a rematch of the group opener in which the Emirates won.
Gulf Cup a chance for UAE to begin Zaccheroni era with unexpected but welcome trophy
Whether through fortune or through fortitude, the UAE find themselves one match from a third Gulf Cup of Nations success. One match, 90 minutes or even maybe a little more, to emulate those celebrated campaigns of 2007 and of 2013.
It never seemed possible one month ago, with the tournament yet to revert to Kuwait and the national team looking forward merely to December friendlies with Algeria and Ecuador.
But then the Gulf Cup was thrust upon the new manager Alberto Zaccheroni and his players. Initially a bonus event in the build-up to next year’s Asian Cup, it offers now not simply the chance of another trophy, but an opportunity to reinforce how a third manager in eight anxious months through 2017 is indeed the right man to lead the charge for 2019.
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Oman await the UAE in Friday’s final at the Jaber Al Ahmad International Stadium, a towering structure to the south of Kuwait City. They have already been defeated, losing 1-0 to the Emirates in the Group A opener two weeks ago. Yet they cannot be underestimated. They must not.
Zaccheroni stressed as much in his obligatory pre-match meeting with the media on Thursday. Confident but still cautious in public, he will have accentuated the point in private.
While Oman have grown into the tournament since that narrow reverse on December 22, the UAE have laboured. They have failed to score in the three matches that followed, eking goalless draws against an understrength Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. Penalties in Tuesday’s semi-final were required to carry them this far.
That they have reached this stage should not be taken lightly, though. Like a number of their competitors, the UAE had very little time to prepare for the tournament. Unlike the majority, however, they have a new manager in place, a new system to learn, a new voice to become familiar with. Zaccheroni has been there less than three months.
And so he has conformed, seemingly, to the footballing principles of his country of birth, the Italian working primarily on making the UAE first difficult to beat. Some have criticised the blunted attack, but the UAE boast the best defence in the tournament. In four matches, they are yet to concede.
Appointed in mid-October, following Edgardo Bauza's blink-and-you-miss-it tenure, Zaccheroni was always going to build from the base, go back to basics. What else could he have done?
Of course, the next step will be to marry the resolve with a ruthlessness in front of goal. Certainly, he possesses the players, particularly in Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil, Ismail Al Hammadi and Ali Mabkhout. But injuries and fitness concerns to those four, and other integral members of national teams past, have not helped.
That the UAE stand one match from Gulf glory is to their credit. As has been emphasised by Zaccheroni, the team management and those who occupy the loftier positions within the Football Association, the Asian Cup remains the overarching objective.
The Gulf Cup, unexpected but necessary, represents a more immediate, a more tangible, target. It provides an opportunity to kick-start the Zaccheroni era with silverware, with that winning feeling and with the promise that, given the time and the resources, there is much more to come.
Zaccheroni said on Thursday that his players “embrace the responsibility” of delivering a third Gulf Cup success. They must seize the moment, too.