x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ismail Matar needs to strike up a new partnership

Mahdi Ali is likely to opt to pair the senior striker with his Al Wahda teammate Saeed Al Kathiri today, in place of the injured, and out of form, Ahmed Khalil.

The UAE national football team practiced last night in Al Shabab's stadium, the venue for tonights match with Uzbekistan. Christopher Pike / The National
The UAE national football team practiced last night in Al Shabab's stadium, the venue for tonights match with Uzbekistan. Christopher Pike / The National

The main focus of tonight's friendly against Uzbekistan should be to find a strike partner for Ismail Matar.

A consolation of being eliminated from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, is that Mahdi Ali, the head coach, can focus solely on preparing for the next tournament on his agenda - the 2013 Gulf Cup.

However, Mahdi Ali will remember that the last time the Emirates senior team played in a major tournament, they failed to score in three games.

Ahmed Khalil, Matar's regular partner at international level, has not scored a competitive goal for the UAE's first team in more than two years.

He is out tonight following a recent injury giving another forward the chance to stake his claim.

Optimism is high following the transition to the senior squad of several members of the country's most successful age group team and the appointment of Mahdi Ali.

The coach's first two games in charge - both friendlies - have been promising, with a 1-0 defeat away at the regional heavyweights Japan on September 6 and a 3-0 triumph over Kuwait at home four days later.

Tonight's game at Al Shabab's stadium will give the player the chance to prove themselves ahead of next year's qualifying games for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

But more importantly is fine tuning the team for the Gulf Cup, which will be played in Bahrain in January.

The UAE's last trophy was when they hosted the biennial championship in 2007, but, with none of the Arabian Gulf's teams in particularly good shape, they have a good chance of winning the trophy again.

Qatar, Oman and Iraq, will all have the distraction of trying to reach Brazil 2014, while Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, like the UAE, all failed to qualify for the final stage of World Cup qualifying and Yemen harbour no realistic ambitions of winning the Gulf Cup.

Playing into Mahdi Ali's hands is the fact most of his squad have been playing together since the age of 16 and they have experience of succeeding in tournaments

They won a maiden Under 19 AFC Asian Championship in 2008, a silver medal at the Asian Games and made a first ever appearance in the Olympic Games in London in the summer. They also reached the last eight in the Under 20 World Cup.

The experience gained from playing together for years is that the squad have an understanding. The fact that Mahdi Ali draws heavily on the players from Al Ain, Al Wahda and Al Jazira can only help in finding that on-field harmony.

It is no coincidence that Spain's all conquering squad of the past six years is made up of players who grew up together, with many of them teammates at Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Mahdi Ali is also looked up to as a father figure and the respect he receives from his players is his biggest advantage. It is no doubt a benefit that he speaks the same first language as his players when he aims to communicate his ideas.

The coach also seems to be able to get the best out the senior players such as Matar, who scored twice at the London Olympics, Walid Abbas, who marshalled the defence admirably and Ali Kasheif, the goalkeeper who has been outstanding.

However, all that groundwork will count for nothing if the team cannot put the ball in the net.

The Olympic team showed the success a two-pronged strike force could have as the Emirates scored in each of their games in London, with Matar on target twice.

If fit, Matar will likely start alongside his Al Wahda teammate Saeed Al Kathiri tonight, and this could well be the duo to lead the line in Bahrain.

Al Kathiri is highly regarded by his club coach Branko Ivankovic. The Croatian has even moved his foreign forwards - Papa Waigo and Marcelo Oliveira - to the wings to play the Emirati at centre-forward.

Al Kathiri has responded by scoring three goals in four matches so far this season. He also netted in the win over Kuwait.

Khalil, long regarded as the country's best forward prospect, has not got a regular place for his club team Al Ahli and his lack of sharpness was evident at the Olympics.

Ali Mabkhout, the only other striker in the squad, is another who does not start regularly for his club - he has to play second fiddle to Ricardo Oliveira and Fernandinho, the Brazilians, at Al Jazira.

Al Nasr's Hassan Mohammed, who was the top Emirati scorer last season with nine goal in 21 games playing for Dubai, was not selected in the current squad. So, that leaves Al Kathiri with the opportunity to become a star for both for his club and country. He should grab it with both hands.

apassela@thenational.ae

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