x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE and Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil plays his cards close to chest

Quiet man Ahmed Khalil could yet end up being the first Emirati to try his luck in one of Europe's top leagues, writes Ali Khaled.

Ahmed Khalil, left, has a physicality to his game that many of his contemporaries lack, according to our columnist. Satish Kumar / The National
Ahmed Khalil, left, has a physicality to his game that many of his contemporaries lack, according to our columnist. Satish Kumar / The National

UAE coach Mahdi Ali is behind the idea, as long as the players are patient and do not succumb to rumours. Mohamed Zidan of Egypt and Baniyas, one of the most successful Arab exports to Europe, believes it is an adventure that needs to be taken as early as possible in a player's career. And just about everyone else is convinced that Omar Abdulrahman is the one who should be doing it first.

It seems the time for a player from the UAE to play in one of Europe's major leagues has finally arrived. And thanks to his rise to prominence over the last year, Abdulrahman, the Al Ain midfielder, is the player that football fans across the nation believe has the best chance of succeeding as the first Emirati in a top European league.

Seemingly forgotten in the discussion is the 21-year-old striker whose playing career seems to have been scripted in tandem with that of Mahdi Ali's coaching journey.

Not much noise is being made on behalf of Ahmed Khalil these days. Least of all, by the man himself.

Speaking on Sunday at the launch of Sports Nutrition Week in Dubai, the campaign's poster boy gave few hints about what the future might hold.

Khalil sidestepped questions regarding his future and his special relationship with Mahdi Ali as easily as he does defenders, when the mood takes him. There was no deviation from the script.

"As a professional, it is vital that you stick to healthy regimen," he said, before adding that, at international levels, Emirati players have "increasingly been improving and today we are delivering a better image of UAE football".

Whether by design or accident, Dubai Sport City's choice for a spokesman is appropriate. Khalil has a physicality to his game that many of his contemporaries lack. If not necessarily in sheer brute strength and size, then at least in withstanding the attentions of defenders.

To use football jargon, Khalil is a player who can "mix it" with the best of them.

Where most experts agree that Abdulrahman would need to bulk up to survive the midfield battles of Spain's Primera Liga or, more obviously, the English Premier League, Khalil already cuts an imposing figure on the pitch. Any extra aggression needed for him to succeed would seem to be purely mental. He is not lacking there, either.

After a spell last season when he struggled with his game, the Al Ahli striker rediscovered his form in time for the Gulf Cup. His two goals against Oman, and his semi-final winner against Kuwait, played a decisive part in the UAE's triumph. As he has done at several age-group levels, he produced for Mahdi Ali when it mattered most.

Still, Khalil appears to shun media attention. And as for the question of playing abroad, good luck trying to get a word out of him. Unlike Abdulrahman.

"This is a great motivation and challenge," Abdulrahman said last week. "I see it as these teams are not only coming for me, as I represent not just myself but the whole country. I'll try my hardest to impress them, so they'll say they've seen a strong UAE player. It's an honour for me.

"I see everywhere as a challenge, so if teams are coming from the English Premier League, Italy's Serie A or the Spanish La Liga, I'd wish to play in any of them."

It is difficult to imagine the reticent Khalil making such a statement, and not because he lacks the confidence that his colleague has in abundance. Khalil, mentally speaking, is just not built that way.

What does come naturally to him, as it does to Abdulrahman, is the priceless ability of finding space on a football pitch.

It was never more evident than in the match against Kuwait. With two minutes left, Abdulaziz Sanqour delivered a delicious low cross through the penalty area, the ball eluding the Kuwaiti defenders. As it arrived at the far post, Khalil appeared, almost out of thin air, to tap in the ball.

The moment was a perfect encapsulation of his greatest qualities: Speed, strength, accuracy and stealth.

That last quality comes through in his interview techniques, too.

Khalil seems to have mastered that art, beloved by footballers throughout the world, of talking without really saying much.

"This a good start for us but we can only hope to keep improving in the coming years," was all he would say when asked about Emirati players moving abroad.

Khalil is keeping his cards close to his chest, and no journalist was going to trick him into giving away anything more than he was prepared to.

Perhaps he really is the best-equipped Emirati to try out his luck in Europe, after all.



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