Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Asian Cup: Instinctive Ali Mabkhout is the UAE's ace in the pack

The Emirati striker's performances at the Asian Cup thus far may not have been up to his usual standard but his predatory instincts in front of goal can fire the national team past Qatar and into Friday's final

The goal portrayed Ali Mabkhout’s predatory talent.

Lurking beyond the Australia backline, the UAE striker anticipated Milos Degenek’s mistake and pounced upon the opportunity. Staring down goalkeeper Mat Ryan, he breezed around him and brushed home the ball. The Hazza bin Zayed Stadium erupted and the UAE held on. A 1-0 victory and a place in the Asian Cup semi-finals was theirs.

Although it was built on a concrete collective, Mabkhout had proved the match-winner. The 2015 tournament’s top scorer, his 68th-minute intervention lifted him to four goals this month. It carried his overall tally to nine, making him the third highest-scorer in the competition’s history. He now resides as its most prolific Arab.

And so Mabkhout the master marksman maintains. Through Asian Cups 2015 and 2019, he is the UAE’s man at the front, the scorer of that wonderful opening goal against Japan in the quarter-finals four years ago, the guy who last Friday landed the decisive blow against Australia.

Thus far this tournament, Mabkhout’s overall performances have not matched his burgeoning reputation on the continent. He has been loose in possession, his touch at times deserting him, his decision-making poor. But often he thrusts himself into the right place at just the right time.

Mabkhout, 28, opened his 2019 account in the second group game against India, supplying a straightforward finish two minutes from time. Already 1-0 up, but fighting to keep at bay their opponents, his goal melted away the tension and pushed the UAE towards the knockouts.

In the next match, Mabkhout reacted quickest to Ismail Al Hammadi’s deflected shot against Thailand. He followed the ball as it ricocheted onto the crossbar, then nodded into an empty net. Seven minutes in, it provided the UAE a perfect start. Despite being eventually pegged back, the draw ensured the hosts progressed as group winners.

Mabkhout would strike again in the first knockout round against Kyrgyzstan, controlling Amer Abdulrahman’s lofted pass before finishing crisply. Again struggling for a foothold and having lost their advantage, the UAE snatched back the lead, finally prevailing in extra-time. Mabkhout had spurned other opportunities to conclude the contest within 90 minutes, but once more he had contributed to a UAE victory.

The ability to advance his country's cause is commendable, especially amid mitigating circumstances. Unlike in 2015, when Mahdi Ali’s compelling team held Australia in their thrall, Mabkhout bears the burden of expectation almost alone. This time, there is no Omar Abdulrahman or, for the most part, Ahmed Khalil.

Abdulrahman has long since been sidelined with a serious knee injury, depriving the UAE of their principal playmaker. It has robbed Mabkhout, too, of the regular supplier of his goals. Khalil, meanwhile, has been cut down by his flagging fitness, reduced this month to cameo appearances. Still, the 2015 Asian Player of the Year has twice struck result-salving penalties, introduced as a late substitute against Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan.

Stripped of two-thirds of their star triumvirate, the onus has fallen largely on Mabkhout. For a host country with aspirations of taking the title, however fanciful that initially seemed, it has been some responsibility to carry.

In spite of that, Mabkhout has delivered at crucial points. Domestically, he has done that for some time at Al Jazira. In the 2016/17 season, he scored 33 times in the Arabian Gulf League to post a new professional-era record and fire the Abu Dhabi club to a second top-flight title in their history. In a division dominated typically by foreign goal-getters, Mabkhout had outshone them all.

This season, the Jazira forward sits alongside Sharjah’s Welliton at the top of the scoring charts at the halfway stage, on 15 goals. Just as with the UAE, his displays have not always been flawless, but the instinct remains.

It will be needed on Tuesday, no doubt, when the UAE meet Qatar in the capital for a place in the Asian Cup final. In Mabkhout, no matter the performance, the home side will forever feel they possess an ace in the pack.

Updated: January 28, 2019 02:35 PM

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