Little time for new manager as friendlies make way for competitive fixtures. But tournament has credibility and must be embraced, while it gives chance for assessment of where Emirates are at
Gulf Cup experience will give UAE's Alberto Zaccheroni good idea of state of team and players
The UAE had been slated to play Algeria and Ecuador.
Two friendlies this month to help Alberto Zaccheroni get to know better his team. Appointed in October, the Italian had had little time with his new side, chiefly a two-week camp during the most recent international break.
Matches this month against Algeria and Ecuador were not ideal, but they provided decent opposition in less-than-decent circumstances. It was almost a year out to the next Asian Cup - the tournament takes place in the Emirates in early 2019 - and the hosts need to ramp up preparations.
Zaccheroni needed it.
Then the Gulf Cup reverted to Kuwait and the UAE were handed a significant boost. Algeria and Ecuador became Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, initially at least, with the national team expected to progress from Group A, alongside the albeit-depleted Saudis.
Crucially, friendly matches became competitive fixtures.
Should the UAE advance, they could meet in the last four Iraq or Bahrain, or Qatar, or Yemen, although for now they are wise to preach focus on Friday’s campaign-opener against Oman.
Admittedly, preparations have been far from perfect, what with participation confirmed only last week.
Al Jazira’s players joined the squad not long before the group set off for Kuwait, delayed as they recovered from their Fifa Club World Cup commitments. Omar Abdulrahman is feeling his way back from another injury. Ahmed Khalil, meanwhile, continues to be assessed given he has not played for club or country since late September.
However, no matter how hastily arranged, the Gulf Cup should be embraced. It is an unexpected boost, a credible tournament that Zaccheroni can use to both experiment with and examine the resources at his disposal.
The squad include a number of experienced players in Ismail Ahmed, Mohanad Salem, Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout. But they also have a selection of largely untried internationals, among them Mohammed Al Attas, Ahmed Malalla, Rayan Yaslam and Ali Salmeen.
Malalla scored the only goal in the UAE’s friendly victory against Iraq in Dubai on Sunday.
Now, though, Zaccheroni has a serious competition to test his team. He can witness his players perform under pressure, how they adapt to tournament football, and how quickly they can implement the ideas and the philosophy of a third manager since March.
Given its composition, the Gulf Cup is a keenly-contested event, made up of derby matches and genuine regional rivalry. Saudi Arabia comprise what is effectively a ‘B’ squad, but those chosen for Kuwait have next summer’s World Cup as incentive to excel.
Kuwait may be some way short of the teams that won nine of the first 14 titles - they have 10 in all - but as hosts they undoubtedly have a point to prove. That resolve is only strengthened by their recent suspension by Fifa and subsequent reprieve.
As for Oman, Zaccheroni has been careful to highlight their experienced squad and time-served coaching staff as reason not to underestimate them.
Predictably, the former Japan manager said reaching the final on January 5 constitutes is the primary objective. Yet he emphasised that the ultimate target remains Asian Cup 2019. Gulf Cup 2017, for some time not even on his radar, represents a real opportunity to lay legitimate groundwork.
Success does not have to be a third regional crown, although the UAE are right to enter the tournament intent on emulating those celebrated sides of 2007 and 2013. To some degree, success is simply having a competitive tournament for Zaccheroni to put in place foundations for the greater assignment to come.
Whatever happens in Kuwait these next two weeks, Zaccheroni's UAE should be all the better for it.