The UAE squad meet in Al Ain on Friday as they begin preparations for the upcoming World Cup double-header against Saudi Arabia and Iraq. John McAuley looks at what lies in manager Edgardo Bauza’s inbox.
World Cup 2018: Five ways UAE can beat Saudi Arabia and Iraq in remaining qualifiers
Give the side more balance
Bauza’s first competitive assignment as UAE manager came against Thailand in June – a match the national team needed to win to maintain any hope of making the World Cup next summer. Pitted against Group B’s bottom side, Bauza selected a starting XI that many would have predicted, although in midfield he opted for Ahmed Barman, Khamis Esmail and Al Nasr’s Tariq Ahmed, with forward Ahmed Khalil beginning on the left.
Ahmed, a determined and disciplined defensive midfielder, played on the right flank, but it did not work. Lop-sided and disjointed, the UAE eventually drew 1-1 to effectively end their chances of reaching Russia. The match also underlined Bauza’s reputation as a defensive-minded manager. Moving forward, he will need to curb the caution, with Al Wahda's Tariq Ahmed in particular excelling last season. Khalfan Mubarak’s omission, meanwhile, is disappointing.
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Get the best out of Omar
When Bauza was first appointed in May, the Argentine floated the idea of Omar Abdulrahman being given a floating role. Or more specifically, used as a “false nine” at the head of the UAE attack. It had worked well at times in the past season for Al Ain, although at that stage the Garden City club did not boast a striker of Ali Mabkhout’s pedigree.
Clearly, Abdulrahman makes the UAE tick. Against Thailand, the playmaker began in the hole behind Mabkhout, from where he could exert control and create chances for teammates. However, when he drops too deep, as he did in Bangkok, his output is limited somewhat. No doubt Bauza understands the team should be built around the reigning Asian player of the year. Fitting the pieces alongside Abdulrahman remains an issue.
Sort the Khalil conundrum
One of the UAE’s most prominent players, Ahmed Khalil has offered little to his national team recently. In Thailand, the striker gave one of his worst displays to date, failing to break beyond Ali Mabkhout at the tip of the attack, his touch lacking throughout. Substituted not long after the hour, Khalil looked completely drained.
To be fair, fitness concerns have plagued the forward for the past season - and back beyond - but he has since moved from Al Ahli to Al Jazira, with the UAE champions reporting that Khalil has performed well during pre-season. As the 2015 Asian player of the year, and with 15 goals in this World Cup qualification, his input should be integral. That summer momentum requires maintaining. Do not, though, and Khalil could lose his place in the starting line-up.
Also from John McAuley
- Bauza returns to UAE ahead of qualifier against Saudi Arabia
- UAE squad to assemble in Al Ain for must-win qualifier
- Bauza names 30-man squad for double-header
Find a new centre-back pairing
They have been the UAE’s go-to duo for some time now, entrusted for both their country and for club Al Ain. Mohanad Salem and Ismail Ahmed have at often been steady and sturdy at the heart of the UAE defence, but age and injuries are beginning to rack up and stack up. At present, Ahmed is racing to be fit for Al Ain’s Asian Champions League quarter-final first leg against Al Hilal on Monday and, with Hamdan Al Kamali injured too, Bauza needs to find another solution.
His current squad includes only Fares Juma and Mohammed Marzouq as like-for-like replacements, although specialist full-backs Walid Abbas and Mohammed Ahmed can fill in in the middle as well. That position requires two players who understand each other intrinsically. Given the present situation, able back-ups are a must.
Also read: Qualifier with Iraq moved to Jordan
Settle on his first-choice full-backs
The defensive wide positions have been a regular source of frustration to fans of the UAE national team. Traditionally, Mahdi Ali preferred Ahli pair Abdulaziz Haikal and Abdulaziz Sanqour, despite the two never appearing the right fit. On first impression, though, Bauza seemed set to rectify the issue. Mahmoud Khamis, the Al Nasr left-back, impressed in training and was subsequently chosen to start in the draw in Thailand - the correct choice given his performances for the Dubai club during the past few seasons.
However, Sanqour began the match on the opposite flank, when Mohammed Fawzi seemed certain to be reinstated following a fine domestic campaign with champions Jazira. The right-back was eventually introduced once Sanqour picked up an injury. An energetic and experienced presence, he should retain his place.