In the absence of exiled superstars Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout in Thailand, a valiant second-half fightback against Slovakia on Thursday ended with a 2-1 loss.
Here are the talking points:
CAN KHALIL KEEP IT UP?
The UAE’s usual triple-pronged threat is missing two of its constituent parts in Bangkok.
Without Amoory and Mabkhout, 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil experienced a mixed outing against the Slovaks. After failing to score during the recent Gulf Cup, the Al Ain forward expertly found the bottom corner to spark hope at Rajamangala National Stadium.
But even then, further glaring chances – such as a last-gasp chip – would pass him by.
A combination of Khalil’s hulking frame and poor injury record has made it a challenge to play successive games at a high level. He needs to be at his best against Gabon – the UAE needs him.
RAYAN OF LIGHT
Positives have been in short supply for the Whites.
From the paternal Mahdi Ali’s near five-year tenure ending in open dissent last March, to Edgardo Bauza’s failure to secure World Cup 2018 qualification and the miserly opening months of Alberto Zaccheroni’s reign.
This sense of desolation has only been added to by Abdulrahman and Mabkhout’s breaking of curfew prior to January 5’s Gulf Cup final loss.
But in the second half in Bangkok, rare bright shoots broke through. Al Ain’s 23-year-old playmaker Rayan Yaslam came off the bench to produce a beautiful throughball that cut apart Slovakia’s defence for Khalil’s goal and a long-range pass that should have led to an equaliser.
If Amoory’s absence is an extended one, he’s the heir apparent.
FORGING THE WAY FORWARD
Watching the UAE take the game to Slovakia in a stretched second half was a sight to savour.
They had more attempts and possession against a nation who made Euro 2016’s round of 16 and are ranked 50 places higher by FIFA, in 29th.
Zaccheroni’s contract ties him to the UAE Football Association until the end of January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil. But the capricious leaders of Middle Eastern football need little excuse to jettison a coach.
Another statement must be made against Gabon. The ex-AC Milan supremo cannot afford for bad feelings to fester.
The Whites wind up this four-team annual tournament in Bangkok against Gabon on Sunday. Both sides lost their opening games on Thursday – the Africans, without Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang because of a family bereavement, lost on penalties to hosts Thailand and their next opponents were edged 2-1 by Slovakia.
Coach Alberto Zaccheroni is now likely to unleash prospects such as Al Nasr’s Jassem Yaqoub and Al Wahda’s Mohamed Al Akbari at Rajamangala National Stadium.
With Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout absent because of disciplinary issues, brother Mohamed is urging the Whites to take on board as much as they can ahead of January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil.
“Participation in the King’s Cup is very useful,” said the 29-year-old Al Ain utility man ahead of this third-place play-off. “This is especially true for the technical staff, who will gain more knowledge of the players.
“Gabon is one of the strongest teams from Africa, but our team has strong desires to win.”
Gabon also failed to make World Cup 2018. Despite boasting players like Southampton battler Mario Lemina, they are ranked 16 places lower by FIFA in 95th.
“I believe that for the game to secure the third place for this tournament against the UAE, our players will play better,” said coach Jose Antonio Camacho.
“Gabon will try our best in this game.”
Coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena is confident the Al Wasl supporters “know very well” he’s trying everything possible to end a wretched run ahead of Thursday’s Arabian Gulf Cup semi-final decider against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.
A season that once held great promise has disintegrated for the Cheetahs thanks to winning just one of their last 11 matches in all competitions. This worrying spell included a goalless draw at Rashid Stadium as they attempt to win a first trophy in eight years.
“We work hard for the team, we always criticise ourselves,” said Arruabarrena.
“The Al Wasl fans know very well that we have been doing our best for a year and a half and that we are not wasting anything on the team. In this period, we will do our utmost to achieve a trophy.”
Opponents Shabab Al Ahli have endured a trying debut campaign after last May’s merger.
In a former guise as Al Ahli, they are the AG Cup’s holders. Current leader Mahdi Ali hoped to spring a surprise.
He said: “Al Wasl is a good team, they have players and a coach at high level coach.
“In cup games, there are always surprises.”
In the day’s other tie, 2015/16 winners Al Wahda hold a commanding 4-2 advantage when they travel to Dibba Al Fujairah.
Despite this, and a 22-point gap in the Arabian Gulf League, boss Laurentiu Reghecampf is taking nothing for granted.
He said: “We have to respect the capabilities of the opposing team. We know that the game will be difficult and we will seek to win.”
Dibba have never won a major trophy and this is the farthest they’ve ever gone in the AG Cup.
Coach Paulo Comelli’s belief in a marquee result remained intact.
He said: “We know that this game represents a special task. Al Wahda is strong.
“I have high confidence in my team. My trust in them is never shaken.”