x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Friendlies will prove a sign of Mahdi Ali's intent to win Gulf Cup

Ismail Matar is unlikely to feature in the UAE's warm-up against Yemen tonight as the national coach looks to repeat the team's success in the 2007 Gulf Cup.

Ali Mabkhout has been in good form for the UAE as a forward, and scored four goals against Bahrain.
Ali Mabkhout has been in good form for the UAE as a forward, and scored four goals against Bahrain.

The UAE's Gulf Cup-bound team will get their first workout tonight when they meet Yemen in a friendly match in Doha.

The Whites have been at a training camp in Qatar since Friday to prepare for the Gulf Cup, which starts in Bahrain on January 5 with the UAE opening their Group A campaign against Qatar on the first day.

Mahdi Ali's team then meet Bahrain on January 8 before completing their group engagements against Oman three days later.

The UAE won the Gulf Cup at home in 2007 and that remains the country's only football title at the senior level on international stage.

The success of this current national team at various age-level tournaments and their qualification for the London Olympics has, however, raised the hope of an encore in Bahrain.

Yemen are thought to be the weakest of the eight teams competing in Bahrain, so the result of this game will perhaps not matter much to Mahdi Ali.

Instead he will be keen to get his players back into sync as the squad have only been back together for less than a week.

For once, though, a UAE national team coach will not have to worry about the match fitness of his players. Almost every squad member has been playing regularly for his club this season.

Players like Ali Mabkhout have even managed to get the nod ahead of foreign professionals such as Fernandinho at Al Jazira.

Mabkhout has appeared in every Pro League game for Jazira this season, scoring six goals, and that confidence has shone through on the international stage.

In the UAE's last two friendly matches, the 22-year-old forward has scored five goals - four in the 6-2 rout of Bahrain and one in the 2-1 win over Estonia.

Saeed Al Kathiri, Mabkhout's partner in attack, has also been a regular at Al Wahda, playing in all but one of their league matches. He has shown greater confidence and composure in the UAE jersey as well this season.

The same can be said for every member of Mahdi Ali's squad, from Majid Hassan of Al Ahli to Habib Fardan of Al Nasr - except for the forwards Ahmed Khalil and Ismail Matar.

"We have a number of talented players [in the Pro League] like Omar Abdulrahman, Khamis Ismail, Abdulaziz Sanqoor, Ismail Ahmed, Habib Fardan and Ali Mabkhout," Mahdi Ali said in an interview after announcing his shortlist of 23 players. "They have been at a consistently good level and have played a big role with their teams.

"The other players have been a bit up and down and I hope they will provide a better level."

Khalil has not scored this season - not on the international stage nor for Ahli - but his opportunities have been limited with Grafite in such great form for his club. Injuries have not helped his cause either.

Quique Sanchez Flores, the Ahli coach, believes Khalil - once the biggest star of Mahdi Ali's youth squad - is gradually rediscovering his confidence and form.

With Mabkhout and Al Kathiri surging up the pecking order, the former Asian Youth Player of the Year will be keen to prove his worth if given a chance against Yemen tonight, or Tajikistan in four days.

Matar has been struggling with a recurring ankle injury, going to Germany every month for treatment.

To make matters worse, he suffered a few harsh tackles during Wahda's President's Cup match against Al Shaab last week and an ankle was left badly bruised. The injury delayed his departure for Doha by two days.

It is possible Mahdi Ali might not risk him in the friendly matches, but the UAE medical staff will be working overtime to get Matar ready for the UAE's Gulf Cup opener on January 5 because, as his two goals at the London Olympics prove, he remains one of the country's best players.

 

arizvi@thenational.ae

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