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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 January 2019

Ayman Al Khulaif interview: Saudi Arabia winger hopes to replicate hero Eden Hazard at 2019 Asian Cup

Three-time champions look to youth as they prepare for Group E opener against North Korea

Saudi Arabia's Ayman Al Khulaif in action at the Asian Games in Jakarta last summer. AFP  
Saudi Arabia's Ayman Al Khulaif in action at the Asian Games in Jakarta last summer. AFP  

Juan Antonio Pizzi, much like his Saudi Arabia team he has instructed to pass the ball out from the back, is playing a risky game at this month’s Asian Cup.

The Argentine has selected only one recognised striker in his squad of 23, electing to leave precocious young forward Haroune Camara on the wrong side of the UAE border.

For a team that has scored only five times in six games since a World Cup campaign in which no team scored fewer, it appears an odd decision. Yet Pizzi’s inclusion of two of Camara’s U21 teammates suggests method to the apparent madness.

At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Camara grabbed headlines when he netted a hat-trick for Saudi against a much-fancied China. Yet it masked the fact at times in the tournament the sinewy striker failed to shift the ball quick enough and was routinely at fault as attacks broke down at his feet.

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For Pizzi, a manager that adheres to the belief teamwork is tantamount, it was unacceptable.

Pizzi often theorises that while goals are important, they are merely the consequence of quality, conjoined attacking play. As a result, he instead called upon the two widemen deployed behind Camara: Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Ayman Al Khulaif.

Ghareeb scored twice at the Games – both penalties – and has since made five appearances for the senior side, netting his first goal in the friendly win over Yemen.

Al Khulaif made his debut in the same match, replacing Salman Al Faraj for the final four minutes. He has not featured again since, but if Pizzi needs to unlock a defence, he has a player who revels in such tasks.

A rapid, direct winger with excellent close control, Al Khulaif likes to beat his marker and leave them lying on the grass in a heap. He can also shift inside and play as a false nine, an ability he has worked on by watching videos of his role model Eden Hazard.

“I see myself playing the same style as him,” Al Khulaif told The National. “Of course, there is a big difference between me and Hazard, but I look up to him, watch him a lot on videos, and try to copy the way he plays. He is a player who gets fans excited and can create something from nothing.”

Al Khulaif’s rise has been as quick as one of his adventures down the right flank. Saudi’s standout player at the Asian Games, he was playing despite having just returned from a seven-month lay-off with a fractured fibula.

His U23 coach described him as “playing with his heart”, but he also played with the hearts of opposition defenders, twisting their blood as he drove past them. He won both the penalties Ghareeb converted.

Whether Al Khulaif will be afforded an opportunity in the UAE remains to be seen, but for now he is just delighted to be involved.

A place in the Asian Cup squad looked a distant dream just a few months ago, with Al Ahli planning to farm him out on loan for the season. His performances in Indonesia forced them to rethink.

“I was one of the players on the list that the club was thinking of loaning out when we finished participating with the national team,” he added. “But when they watched the games at the tournament they changed their mind and I was told I would get my chance to play at Ahli. I am so thankful for this opportunity.”

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The Ahli management have been true to their word, albeit a little slower than Al Khulaif would like. He has made three substitute appearances so far this season, totalling 79 minutes. Yet while his fitness has improved, he knows there are other aspects of his game that must get better too.

“When you talk about improvement at this age, you have to improve every aspect,” he said. “But we also can’t let it hold us back. For example, I know I need to work on my physicality as I'm a bit weak, but for now I can make up for it with what I have in my head. Not every player can do that.”

Pizzi might not have an orthodox answer to his striking problem, but in Al Khulaif he has a player who can create and contribute to a quality, conjoined attack. And the consequence of that is well-known.

Updated: January 7, 2019 11:27 AM

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