The UAE have headed home from the 2018 King’s Cup with a pair of defeats and plethora of questions unanswered about the way forward with less than a year to go until the 2019 Asian Cup on home soil.
We examined the winners and losers for the Whites from the annual event at Bangkok’s iconic Rajamangala National Stadium.
A regular spot at Al Ain was Yaslam’s distant dream little more than a year ago – never mind with his national team.
Fast forward to today and the 23-year-old is fast emerging as a key player for both club and country. Filling the creative role vacated by exiled compatriot Omar Abdulrahman, Yaslam was by far the Whites’ best player in Thailand.
During Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Slovakia, a 20-minute cameo provided club-mate Ahmed Khalil with two superb chances from which just one was converted.
Unleashed from the start in Sunday’s 1-0 third-place play-off loss to Gabon, a neat one-two with the same player should have earned a leveller.
Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout
Reputations have been enhanced in absentia for the castigated star duo.
Don’t forget at the preceding Gulf Cup, the errant duo – who were, admittedly, carrying injuries – helped contribute to the team’s zero goals from open play in five miserly matches.
In just a pair of games in Bangkok, Khalil’s punishing low finish against Slovakia bettered this. The team also dominated both second halves without the duo, banished for breaking curfew before January 5’s showpiece loss to Oman.
But, the Whites remain diminished without them. Nations of their size cannot do without men like 2016 AFC Player of the Year Amoory and Mabkhout, the 2015 Asian Cup’s top scorer.
Talk about grasping an opportunity.
Khamis, 30, was not even named in coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s original 24-man squad. Misery for others provided a fresh start to a player who did not play, although originally selected, at this winter’s Gulf Cup.
In contrast, the Al Nasr defender started both ties for his national side at the Rajamangala and looked comfortable in the Italian supremo’s five-man defence.
With Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s Abdelaziz Sanqour conscripted, this wing-back berth remains open to others. One dreadful late free-kick aside versus the Slovaks, Khamis has put a decent case forward to make it his own.
UAE football fans
Entertainment has been in short supply for the Whites faithful.
In two major tournaments since Zaccheroni’s October appointment, two goals have been scored in 690 minutes of soporific action. And one of these was a penalty by Mabkhout in December 22’s opening group-stage win against Oman in Kuwait.
This follows on from the traumatic end of paternal coach Mahdi Ali’s four-and-a-half-year tenure last March, subsequent failure of the heralded ‘Golden Generation’ to make World Cup 2018 and Argentine tactician Edgardo Bauza’s instant defection to Saudi Arabia.
Zaccheroni is yet to craft a convincing case that better days lie ahead. It is natural to worry about what the Asian Cup holds.
Senior figures at the UAE Football Association have staked a lot on the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan boss.
The recruitment process was taken away from the usual committees and centralised under vice-president Abdulla Al Junaibi. Recriminations from within have only increased in volume as results flatline.
After a porous third-and-final round of qualifying killed dreams of making Russia, Zaccheroni is prioritising adding ballast to the defence. Yet three goals were conceded in two matches in Bangkok.
It is nearly two decades since the 64-year-old lifted the Serie A title with Milan. He must quickly prove he’s not yesterday’s man.
No chance was wasted by Zaccheroni to reiterate the King’s Cup was a learning experience for colts who can charge for a spot at the Asian Cup.
In Yaslam and fellow forward Mohamed Al Akbari, 22, of Al Wahda, they staked decent claims to perform useful roles in the Emirates next winter. A contemporary expected to join them was Nasr’s Jassem Yaqoub.
But the 21-year-old was only thrown on in the 87th minute of the reversal to Gabon. This follows a 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League campaign that features just one goal in 14 run-outs.
UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni has declared “all players” still have a chance to feature in January 2019’s Asian Cup.
Zaccheroni, 64, saw a squad weakened by injuries, plus the enforced exiles of stars Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout for disciplinary reasons, go down to a pair of narrow losses at the 2018 King’s Cup in Thailand. The matches against Slovakia and Gabon existed as proving grounds for the Whites, as they build up to next year’s tournament on home soil.
“It was a great opportunity to enhance the potential and experience of the team after attending this year’s King’s Cup 2018 tournament in Thailand,” said the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan boss.
“Many players have developed and showed good form during the past two matches.
“As of now, all players still have a chance to be in the final team.”
Among those to grasp opportunities to impress were emerging Al Ain attacking midfielder Rayan Yaslam and youthful Al Wahda forward Mohamed Al Akbari.
The UAE are set to undertake a number of friendlies and training camps before 2019’s event. They finished third in the previous edition in Australia four years ago.
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.