x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UAE youngsters face final test in Doha

UAE are heavy favourites to lift the Under 23 Gulf Cup, but for some of the country's young stars, tonight could propel them to the senior national team.

The UAE squad train yesterday ahead of tonight's final in Doha.
The UAE squad train yesterday ahead of tonight's final in Doha.

The UAE were billed as the favourites to win the Under 23 Gulf Cup before the start of the championship because they had a significant number of players in their squad who had already played for in the senior national team and a host of others seemingly on the verge of a call-up. Ahmed Khalil, the top scorer in the championship with four goals from three games, is the most capped member of the squad with 13 senior international games.

The 19-year-old striker from Al Ahli is the undoubted bright hope of UAE football, having topped the scoring charts in the Under 19 Asian Cup, which the team won in Saudi Arabia in 2008, before being crowned the Asian Youth Player of the Year later that year. "The players we see in the Under 23 Gulf Cup obviously are the future of these countries but the UAE players are the most experienced off all," said Fahad Ali, the former UAE captain, who now works as a technical staff member under the national team coach Srecko Katanec.

"These players have been together for quite some time and they have really grown up together since winning the Under 19 Asian Cup. They continued to impress on the bigger stage by reaching the quarter-finals in the Under 20 World Cup last year. "They are all well exposed, both internationally and in the domestic Pro League, in which they have found starting spots for their respective clubs. This augurs well for the future of our senior national team as it provides a bigger pool of players and plenty of options."

Khalil now carries the nation's hopes beyond the Olympic team, and he is already earmarked as the new Ismail Matar, touted to fill the boots of the diminutive Al Wahda striker - who was the hero of the UAE's 2007 Gulf Cup win - as the Emirate's talisman. Mohammed Fawzi, the captain of the U23 side and Khalil's teammate at Ahli, who set up the striker's fourth goal of the competition, puts all the success they had so far on the long-term planning and the preparation they have gone through.

"Our preparation for this competition has been spot on and the results we have achieved so far say it all," said Fawzi. "But we still have one more game and this is the most important of all, and our camp is very confident of fulfilling the promise we have show so far. "This squad has grown as a family as we have been together for more than four years. We know each other so well. We know the strengths and weaknesses of every player, and we have adapted well to cover up those inconsistencies.

"Finally, I hope we can win the cup. It will be the best motivation for the Asian Games in November and the 2012 Olympic Games qualifiers. We want to do more pride for our nation's football." Amer Abdulrahman and Theyab Awana, have also both played in the senior national team, and along with their Baniyas teammate, Saleh Haboush, who scored UAE's final goal having arrived as a late substitute in their 3-1 win over Qatar in the semi-final, have featured prominently in the competition.

Omar Abdulrahman and Yousif Abdulrehman, the goalkeeper, both from Al Ain, hold similar credentials in the side, and their contributions along with Ahmed Ali, the Wahda midfielder, have played an important role in the UAE's run to the final. However, Mahdi Ali, the coach, has insisted on a combined final effort in their quest to win tonight's final in their maiden appearance in the second staging of the championship.

Awana, who plays alongside Ahmed Khalil in attack, is set to return for the UAE after sitting out the semi-final because of an injury. The Baniyas forward will have to pass a fitness test, but otherwise it should be an unchanged team from the last game. apassela@thenational.ae UAE v Kuwait, 6.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1 and Dubai Sports 1