x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Gulf Cup: Bar is higher for Oman without goalkeeper Al Habsi

Coach Le Guen anticipated missing out on their key player but is confident of his two reserves.

Ali Al Habsi plays for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League and has been refused permission by them since he is carrying an injury.
Ali Al Habsi plays for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League and has been refused permission by them since he is carrying an injury.

Ali Al Habsi, the only football player from the region to be plying his trade in the English Premier League, will not be in Bahrain when the GCC's top footballers battle for the Gulf Cup.

The winner of four consecutive Goalkeeper of the Tournament awards at the Gulf Cup, the Wigan Athletic player has been denied permission by his club to join Paul Le Guen's Oman squad for the two-week tournament, which starts on Saturday.

"Ali is our captain and a massive player for Oman," Le Guen's said at a press conference in Muscat on Tuesday after announcing his final squad of 23 for the tournament, which is not sanctioned by Fifa, meaning clubs have no obligation to release their players.

"We will definitely miss him and it is a big blow for us, but I have told the other players that they have to give their best so that we can do well in the tournament.

"We did try talking to Wigan manager [Roberto] Martinez till the last minute, but they refused to release Ali for the tournament. Ali seems to have been carrying a minor injury and they don't want to take any risks with that.

"And more over the tournament is not a Fifa recognised event and they have every right to reject our request."

Oman, winners of the 2009 Gulf Cup at home and runners-up at the two previous editions, failed to make it beyond the group stages at the last tournament in Yemen when they were without Al Habsi. Le Guen, however, is confident the goalkeepers he is bringing to Bahrain will do the job. "I anticipated this problem," the Frenchman said.

"So we took two goalkeepers, Mazen Al Qasbi and Fayeez Al Rushaidi, for the West Asia Championship in Kuwait [in December] and they did well, especially Mazen, who is my No 1 goalkeeper.

"He has done extremely well and I have faith in him, so we have to be optimistic and play to our potential. I know the Gulf Cup is a different ball game. The pressure will be more. But I am confident they will deliver."

Al Qasbi and Al Rushaidi conceded two goals in three matches at the West Asian Championship as Oman topped their group and made it to the last four, where they lost 2-0 to Iraq. The team eventually finished third, defeating Bahrain 1-0 in the play-offs.

Qasim Said, the attacking midfielder, scored four of Oman's five goals in the tournament, but the impressive 23 year old has failed to find a place in the Gulf Cup squad.

"Qasim has been a wonderful player for Oman and he has performed very well in Kuwait," said Le Guen, whose contract with the Oman national team has been extended to 2016.

"He has scored for Oman on many occasions, but only with the help of Yaqub [Abdulkarim], who has been instrumental in feeding Qasim. So when it came to making the decision, I opted for Yaqub."

Oman are in the same group as the UAE and open their campaign against Bahrain on Saturday. Three days later, they square off against Qatar before completing their group engagements against Mahdi Ali's team on January 11.

"We hope to begin with a victory against Bahrain," Le Guen said. "But we have to be strong because it is the first match of the tournament and that too against the hosts.

"Our players need to be ambitious. As I have been saying from the beginning of my tenure, they have to adopt the culture of winning and think only about winning."

Group A teams (other than UAE and Oman)

Bahrain

The hosts of the first Gulf Cup in 1970 are the only team, aside from new entrants Yemen, not to have won the trophy. It has been a frustrating 42-year wait, during which they have finished runners-up four times – in 1970, 1982, 1992 and 2003 – and the home fans will be hoping for success at home.

The omens are looking good, especially as the former Baniyas manager Gabriel Calderon replaced Peter Taylor following the 6-2 drubbing by the UAE in October. Bahrain have lost just once in 11 matches under Calderon and reached the semi-finals of the West Asian Championship in Kuwait last month, where they lost on penalties to eventual winners Syria.“It is not going to be easy for Bahrain,” Calderon said. “We are in a group that includes two teams [Qatar and Oman], who are still in the running for a spot at the 2014 World Cup, and the UAE are a strong team as well. So we have to take one game at a time.”

Qatar

The past year was a disappointing one for Qatar with just three wins in 13 matches – two of them against Lebanon in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. They lost five of those matches, including the 2-0 defeat to Egypt in a friendly on December 28. Given their struggles, the 1992 and 2004 champions come to Bahrain as underdogs.

On form, it would be difficult to see them progress from a group that includes two semi-finalists at the recent West Asian Championships – hosts Bahrain and the 2009 champions Oman – and the UAE. The Qatar coach Paulo Autuori was, however, bullish about his team’s chances at the tournament.“We will be playing to win,” said the Brazilian. “If we win, that will help improve the players’ confidence going into the remaining 2014 World Cup qualifiers.”

arizvi@thenational.ae

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