UAE's Asian Cup strategy must be to take one step at a time
Far-from-ideal preparations mean hosts' only objective should be to seal top spot in Group A, and with it less-arduous route to latters stages
Late on Wednesday, three days out from the opening match of the 2019 Asian Cup, the UAE national team’s media office sent out a release, part interview with Ahmed Khalil, part rallying call.
In it, after Khalil reiterated aspirations of taking the title, they citied five reasons for optimism ahead of this month’s tournament in the Emirates.
Strong leadership, from the Football Association and beyond; home advantage, for the second time in the continent’s marquee event; experience, headed by veteran forward Ismail Matar; the club form of Ali Mabkhout and Khalfan Mubarak at Al Jazira; the recent Fifa Club World Cup, in which Al Ain, the side that provides more players to the UAE squad than any other, made a shock surge to the final.
If the call to arms seemed a little unusual, it felt necessary, too. Because the UAE’s preparations have been far from ideal. There have been injuries to key players, criticism of manager Alberto Zaccheroni, no discernible progress in terms of results.
In 18 matches since the Italian’s appointment in October 2017, the UAE have registered six victories. Last week, in their final warm-up match, they lost 2-0 to Kuwait.
However, the hope is that, come Saturday’s kick-off against Bahrain at Zayed Sports City Stadium, the UAE will click into gear and embark on an ultimately successful campaign. For some time, and publicly at least, the national team have targeted a run to the final on February 1.
Initial success, though, constitutes taking one of two automatic qualification spots from a Group A comprising also India and Thailand. That should form their sole focus. A strong start against Bahrain, therefore, is a must.
How the UAE fare remains to be seen. Tellingly, they are without Omar Abdulrahman, their principal playmaker and 2016 Asian player of the year, who starred at the 2015 Asian Cup. A serious knee injury, sustained in October while playing for Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, has ruled out Abdulrahman from what many envisioned would be his crowning moment with his country.
In Abdulrahman’s absence, and even before, goals have been scare. During Zaccheroni’s reign, the UAE have found the net 10 times. They progressed to last year's Gulf Cup final by scoring a solitary goal in open play.
Yet there are bright sparks within the team. Ali Mabkhout may not have transferred recent prolific domestic form to the international game – he has two goals in eight for the UAE – but he departed the 2015 Asian Cup with the Golden Boot.
This season, Mabkhout has 15 goals in 12 Arabian Gulf League appearances. His on-pitch relationship with Khalfan Mubarak has blossomed. The left-footed playmaker, who tops the assists charts with 10, is viewed as an obvious creative replacement for Abdulrahman, although he has featured sporadically for Zaccheroni.
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Khalil, meanwhile, has for some time proved adept at overcoming injury issues to plunder vital goals for his national team. With a solitary strike amid only eight AGL appearances for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai club this season, he will be required to do likewise.
There is promise, also, in Al Ain’s Club World Cup heroics last month.
Zaccheroni raised concerns about the seven-strong contingent’s late arrival to his final training camp. But if they joined up understandably fatigued, they will have been imbued by defeating River Plate, the champions of South America, before performing admirably against Real Madrid in the showpiece. Khalid Essa and Ismail Ahmed, goalkeeper and captain for their country, were particular standouts.
Undoubtedly, all will need to function at optimum level for the UAE to deliver on their target. Yes, home advantage will play its part, and Matar’s know-how can carry forward less-experienced colleagues, such as emerging winger Saif Rashid or irrepressible full-back Bandar Al Ahbabi.
For now, however, talk of the trophy should be tempered, for the UAE are some way off. Sealing top spot in Group A, and with it an apparently less-arduous route to the latters stages, must represent their only objective at the moment.
Updated: January 4, 2019 09:18 AM