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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

Get Omar Abdulrahman focused and sharpen the attack: Issues to tackle as UAE head to Austria for Asian Cup training camp

National team manager Zaccheroni also needs to reintegrate two key midfielders and look for defensive reinforcements

Omar Abdulrahman, left, remains key to the UAE but his club future is up in the balance. AFP
Omar Abdulrahman, left, remains key to the UAE but his club future is up in the balance. AFP

On Wednesday, the UAE ramp up preparations for January’s Asian Cup on home soil when they begin the first of five training camps in the build-up to the tournament. We look at the main issues needing tackled in Austria by manager Alberto Zaccheroni.

Helping Amoory refocus

Omar Abdulrahman’s preparations for camp have not been ideal. The Al Ain captain has spent almost the past two weeks in Madrid, training away from his club colleagues based in Slovenia, his future uncertain.

A free agent, the UAE’s prize asset is said to have attracted a number of interested parties keen on acquiring his services. Added to that, Abdulrahman returns to the national team for the first time following January’s Gulf Cup final defeat – a match in which he missed twice from the spot as Oman captured the title.

Abdulrahman was one of three players accused of breaking curfew the night before the game and was later omitted from the King’s Cup squad in March. The midfielder has always denied the allegation and, in a recent and rare in-depth interview, vowed to prove his innocence. With every going on around him, narrowing his focus this camp will be key.

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Sharpening a blunted attack

Ahmed Khalil has been a constant up-front for the UAE but has struggled with injuries as of late. Christopher Pike / The National
Ahmed Khalil has been a constant up-front for the UAE but has struggled with injuries as of late. Christopher Pike / The National

Zaccheroni’s first nine months at the helm were characterised by the team’s tightness at the back. The UAE reached the Gulf Cup final without conceding a goal in 510 minutes, although the resolve in defence has limited their ruthlessness in attack.

They failed to score a single goal from open play at the Gulf Cup. In fact, in Zaccheroni's 10 matches thus far, the UAE have found the net only four times.

Finding a balance represents the Italian's greatest immediate task. Keeping injury-prone Ahmed Khalil available for selection is important, as is coaxing from Mabkhout the sort of form that fired him to the Golden Boot at the 2015 Asian Cup.

Organising the support behind provides another conundrum: i.e. finding the parts of the puzzle to fit around Abdulrahman so to extract the best from the 2016 Asian footballer of the year.

Reintegrating midfield maestros

Majed Hassan, left, is a talented midfielder but another player who has struggled with injury. Courtesy UAE FA
Majed Hassan, left, is a talented midfielder but another player who has struggled with injury. Courtesy UAE FA

Amer Abdulrahman and Majed Hassan can be counted among the three most talented midfielders for the UAE, alongside Omar Abdulrahman. The two perform very different roles to the No 10, instead stationed deep in midfield and orchestrating play from there.

Amer Abdulrahman, in particular, was just as influential as his namesake in the national team’s pomp. Yet injuries have restricted both he and Hassan for too long.

There were bright signs towards the end of last season, though. Abdulrahman was back in the reckoning at Al Ain, as was Hassan at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai. Having both fit and in form instantly elevates the national team. They can work well alongside one another, linking the attack through Omar Abdulrahman.

Meanwhile, there are others who can support the pair or complement them: Ali Salmeen has impressed during Zaccheroni’s reign, while Khamis Esmail has long been a regular.

Finding alternatives at centre-back

Mohanad Salem has been a key part of the UAE's central defensive partnership alongside Ismail Ahmed Chris Whiteoak / The National
Mohanad Salem has been a key part of the UAE's central defensive partnership alongside Ismail Ahmed Chris Whiteoak / The National

Despite the UAE’s miserliness in defence, the reliance on Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem remains a worry. The Al Ain duo are hugely experienced, but also much closer to the conclusion of their careers than to the beginning: Ahmed has recently turned 35, with Salem a few months past his 33rd birthday.

Zaccheroni has sought alternatives, primarily using Shabab Al Ahli Dubai’s Mohammed Marzouq and Al Nasr’s Khalifa Mubarak. Absent from the original squad for Austria, on Monday Mubarak was called up to replace Al Jazira’s Fares Juma.

Having options in central defence is a requisite, especially should Zaccheroni move to a back three with wing-backs on either flank, as he did at the Gulf Cup.

Considering their know-how, Ahmed and Salem are expected to continue, although time must be given to dependable deputies. Zaccheroni will no doubt use the camp to test and trial replacements.

Bringing through able deputies

UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni has promised to keep an eye on emerging talent at the Asian Games. AFP
UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni has promised to keep an eye on emerging talent at the Asian Games. AFP

For a long time, the composition of the UAE’s squad seemed almost set in stone. It represented one of the main criticisms of Mahdi Ali’s tenure: his starting XI too predictable, the Emirati fastened too rigidly to the same group of players, the formation rarely fluid.

A new manager was always going to bring a fresh outlook, even if Zaccheroni's first few squads looked frustratingly familiar. The run-up to the Asian Cup allows the former Japan manager to experiment somewhat.

For Austria, he appears poised to provide Rayan Yaslam, the impressive Al Ain midfielder, with more game-time, while Sharjah’s Saif Rashid has been included, as has Shabab Al Ahli Dubai defender Mohammed Sebil.

Zaccheroni has also promised to keep a keen eye on the UAE’s Under-23 squad at the upcoming Asian Games. Mohammed Al Attas, Mohammed Al Akbari and Jassem Yaqoob are three who should soon graduate.

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