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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

UAE look to Ali Mabkhout in absence of other 'Big Three': Talking points ahead of next Asian Cup training camp

The absence of two key players, deciding on a settled midfield pairing and the need for goals among the issues facing Zaccheroni

Ali Mabkhout, in red, in action for Al Jazira during the goalless draw against Tractor Sazi in the Asian Champions League on Monday. AFP
Ali Mabkhout, in red, in action for Al Jazira during the goalless draw against Tractor Sazi in the Asian Champions League on Monday. AFP

After UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni named his squad for this month's training camp and friendlies against Bolivia and Egypt, John McAuley addresses the big questions that await the Italian.

As only available member of “Big Three”, will Mabkhout step up?

The announcement on Monday of Alberto Zaccheroni’s latest squad was as noteworthy for its absences as much for whom had been included.

Omar Abdulrahman will play no part, his knee surgery sidelining him long past the Asian Cup. Ahmed Khalil is missing, too, and although the striker is anticipated to return well in time for January, his persistent injury issues remain a worry.

That, then, leaves much resting on Ali Mabkhout's shoulders. Top scorer at the 2015 Asian Cup, the Al Jazira forward is recognised as the third member of the UAE’s “Big Three”. This season, he has nine goals in eight top-flight matches. However, two in six for the UAE – a double against lowly Laos – underlines his struggles with the national team.

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Can Mubarak prove an adequate replacement for Abdulrahman?

Khalfan Mubarak could be called upon to fill the void left by injured Omar Abdulrahman. Reuters
Khalfan Mubarak could be called upon to fill the void left by injured Omar Abdulrahman. Reuters

So, how to fill that Omar Abulrahman-shaped hole, then? The diminutive midfielder leaves a substantial void, the team’s chief conductor, the creator of something from nothing, often the supplier of the final pass or the carving of a chance for Mabkhout and Khalil, typically, to prosper.

Truth be told, Abdulrahman feels irreplaceable. As of now, though, Khalfan Mubarak seems his most obvious replacement. The Jazira playmaker boasts similar traits to Abdulrahman, his low centre of gravity allowing him to find space, his vision making clear a pass to unlock a tight defence.

This season has been particularly productive: Mubarak has four goals and eight assists in nine league matches. Abdulrahman’s absence is far from ideal. The hope is Mubarak can step into the breach.

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Read more:

John McAuley: Omar Abdulrahman injury hits UAE hard and deprives 2019 Asian Cup of a star player

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Who will cement place as Zaccheroni’s first-choice midfield partnership?

Majed Hassan, left, is a tenacious and technically proficient midfielder but has struggled for fitness in recent season. Courtesy UAE FA
Majed Hassan, left, is a tenacious and technically proficient midfielder but has struggled for fitness in recent season. Courtesy UAE FA

Two months out from the Asian Cup and Zaccheroni’s first-choice central midfield partnership remains undecided. As always, injuries have played their part, although for now the Italian looks to have plentiful options.

Majed Hassan and Amer Abdulrahman are still the UAE’s most talented central midfielders, the former tenacious as well as technically proficient, the latter an accomplished link between defence and attack. Both, though, have struggled with fitness these past few seasons.

Other candidates include the industrious Tariq Ahmed and Ali Salmeen, with Khamis Esmail offering experience and a real physicality in the middle – although he is some way short of his best. Al Ain’s Ahmed Barman has not progressed as expected. Hassan and Abdulrahman is the most likely engine-room pair but, still, Zaccheroni needs to commit to it.

Can any of the successful 2018 Asian Games squad stake a claim?

The UAE won the bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Courtesy UAE FA
The UAE won the bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Courtesy UAE FA

Zaccheroni’s squad has been burnished with a number of players from the UAE’s bronze medalists at the recent Asian Games. Ahmed Rashed, the captain in Indonesia, has been called up, alongside Al Wahda teammate and goalkeeper Mohammed Al Shamsi, Sharjah midfielder Majid Surour and Al Jazira forward Zayed Al Ameri.

At the Asian Games, Al Shamsi stood firm in penalty shootouts against Indonesia, North Korea and Vietnam, Rashid was a commendable captain, and Al Ameri scored four goals from his position on the wing.

Admittedly, while this month’s training camp looks set to form little more than a valuable learning experience for the quartet, each will be keen to impress the team’s management. Maybe, even, make a late run for Asian Cup inclusion.

Other than Mabkhout, who can help transform blunt attack?

Ismail Al Hammadi has the ability to help ease the UAE's struggles in front of goal. Getty Images
Ismail Al Hammadi has the ability to help ease the UAE's struggles in front of goal. Getty Images

The UAE’s problems up front are well documented. Since Zaccheroni’s appointment late last year, the team have scored nine goals in 15 matches, an arid spell that has contributed to a solitary victory in their past eight games.

Granted, Mabkhout has been off form – albeit he has played little this year – but the greatest criticism of Zaccheroni has focused on his side's inability to find the net.

As such, he will hope Ismail Al Hammadi’s recent rude health can sharpen the attack. When confident and injury-free, the winger’s capacity to commit opponents stretches defences and opens space for others. Last week, he scored twice against Wahda.

In addition, more will be expected from Mubarak, Rayan Yaslam, maybe even Mohammed Al Akbari and Ahmed Rabea. The burden isn't Mabkhout's alone.