The UAE will attempt to ignore the controversy caused by the exiles of star pair Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout when they kick-off their 2018 King’s Cup campaign against Slovakia on Thursday.
Here are the major talking points for the match in Thailand:
A NEW CORONATION
Ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni cannot be accused of dodging major decisions.
His personal choice to abandon 2016 AFC Player of the Year Abdulrahman and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Mabkhout risks further poor results in the first games since they broke curfew before the Gulf Cup final loss to Oman in early January.
Zaccheroni attempted to downplay their exclusions, saying in Bangkok on Wednesday: “There is nothing to worry about the lack of two players.”
It will be interesting to see how long this stance holds ahead of January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil. Especially if emerging attackers Rayan Yaslam, Jassem Yaqoub and Ahmed Al Attas don’t grasp opportunities to shine in two fixtures this week.
CAN ZACCHERONI CONVINCE?
The UAE have been a tough watch under Zaccheroni.
After a failed third round of World Cup 2018 qualifying under predecessors Mahdi Ali and Edgardo Bauza that saw 13 goals conceded in 10 games, he’s targeted defence as an area of improvement since his appointment in October.
The introduction of his trademark 3-4-2-1 formation saw zero goals conceded at the Gulf Cup. But they only found the back of the net once in five miserly games in Kuwait, through Mabkhout’s opening Group A penalty against Oman.
Captain Ali Khaseif moved to quell serious rumblings of discontent. He said: “The coach cannot be judged at the moment and a strong defence starts us in the right way.”
BOX OFFICE WORRIES
The King’s Cup is one of the most-important annual events on the Thai football calendar.
Unfortunately, a serious talent drain has been witnessed in 2018.
Rajamangala National Stadium will not rock to Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik after he was injured in Napoli’s 1-0 win against Genoa on Sunday, while the death of Arsenal superstar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s grandmother has seen him stay in Europe. This followed Abdulrahman’s and Mabkhout’s absences.
The hosts will now embrace watching diminutive playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin. His progress has kicked up a notch on loan at J1 League’s Consadole Sapporo.
El Shahat, 25, has proved a revelation at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium since he was snapped up on a six-month loan from Misr lel-Makkasa in January for $500,000. An exceptional seven goals and 12 assists have since been registered in 12 appearances across all competitions.
After they failed to include a buyout clause in the original deal, the Boss had been locked in talks to see off widespread interest from the likes of Cairo giants Al Ahly, Turkey’s Besiktas plus a host of clubs throughout the Arabian Gulf.
Such stellar form also saw him named by Pharaohs manager Hector Cuper for this month’s friendlies against Portugal and Greece. When training with his international team-mates in a freezing Switzerland on Tuesday night, an announcement was made by an exuberant Al Ain about their sealing of a deal until 2021 for a transfer fee of Dh11 million.
“I would like to thank coach Zoran Mamic, the management team and my colleagues for the excellent and stimulating atmosphere within the team,” said El Shahat, who has recovered from a slight injury sustained in Saturday’s 3-2 win at Al Jazira.
In addition to making a late charge for Egypt’s squad for Russia, El Shahat is also concentrating on a decisive part of Al Ain’s campaign.
They hold a four-point advantage in the top flight, remain in the President’s Cup and are in a tight Group D in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
El Shahat wanted to guarantee his new employers experience a memorable 50-year anniversary.
He said: “I have to show my best in order to achieve local and continental titles, in conjunction with this great club’s golden jubilee.”
Napoli all-time top scorer Marek Hamsik’s late withdrawal through injury has exacerbated the talent drain when the 2018 King’s Cup kicks-off with Slovakia against the UAE.
A sense of excitement had surrounded Thursday’s first meeting in Thailand’s annual tournament. But the Whites line-up was decimated last Wednesday by the shock international exiles imposed on 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout, as the fallout from their breaking of curfew prior to January 5’s Gulf Cup final defeat to Oman continues.
This deflating situation for fans headed to Bangkok’s iconic, 49,722-capacity Rajamangala National Stadium continued this week when Hamsik, 30, revealed his absence to Slovakian media. The 103-times-capped midfielder took a kick to his thigh and was substituted in the 20th minute of Sunday’s 1-0 win against Genoa in Serie A.
He said: “Thailand is an interesting destination with interesting teams, and I’m sorry I can’t go with the boys. I have not been with them for a long time.”
Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is still expected to feature when Gabon face hosts Thailand in Thursday’s late game.
If the 28-year-old scores in either the opening day or Sunday’s conclusion, he will go ahead of 23-goal Theodore Nzue Nguema as his nation’s all-time leading marksman.
Thai fans will hope to see diminutive attacking midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin. He is excelling on loan at J1 League’s Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.