Al Wasl quest to tame Al Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue and other Arabian Gulf Cup final talking points

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Sebastian Tagliabue (c) in action against Al Wasl (PLC).

The UAE’s first major piece of domestic silverware will be decided on Thursday night when Al Wahda face Al Wasl in the Arabian Gulf Cup final.

At the hastily rearranged venue of Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the Clarets will be looking to make it three-successive seasons with a trophy. Their opponents are enduring both an eight-year drought and an alarming collapse in form.

CAN CHEETAHS TAME TAGLIABUE?

The Arabian Gulf League’s premier gunslinger is showing no signs he’s about to run out of ammunition.

Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue has scored an incredible nine goals in his last four matches, including six of his side’s eight goals during the semi-final slaying of Dibba Al Fujairah. This form has ensured an extension to the 33-year-old’s rapidly expiring contract will be imminently sealed.

Of more immediate concern, the Argentine with 103 AGL goals since 2013 will be smelling blood.

Wasl have kept two clean sheets in their last 19 fixtures, plus will definitely be missing UAE call-up Abdulrahman Ali and potentially skipper Waheed Ismail at centre-back. After already scoring four past them in three meetings this term, target practice awaits.

RODOLFO MUST FIND ANSWERS

Even though there has been a crushing inevitability to Wasl’s decline, the rate of descent is still alarming.

From being right in the mix with – now champions-elect – Al Ain and Wahda in the battle for AGL glory by late January, they’ve since gone on to win just two of their last 12 fixtures in all competitions.

The Cheetahs must be applauded for their prudence in the transfer market. But a failure to add ballast in the last three windows is being felt now, as injuries and bans wrack up.

The time has come for coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena to work out how to make the most of what he’s got.

SEARCH FOR SILVERWARE

The psychology of this match is intriguing.

Wasl haven’t tasted domestic success since their AGL and President’s Cup double of 2006/07. Their last title of any note was 2010’s GCC Champions League.

Triumphs in the 2015/16 AG Cup and 2016/17 President’s Cup created a sense that Wahda were adroitly building towards AGL glory this term. These dreams died with a 6-2 thrashing at the Hazza earlier this month.

Wasl are an inferior outfit, the brilliance of Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima aside.

But victory this week would resonate deep within. Can this desire tip the balance?

Likely line-ups (1)

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Rayan Yaslam is the future for UAE, while Alberto Zaccheroni still has much to prove

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Rayan Yaslam (2nd r) was a rare bright spot for the UAE at the 2018 King's Cup (all UAE FA).

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.

WINNERS

Rayan Yaslam

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.

UAE's Omar Abdulrahman (l) and Ali Mabkhout (2nd l) caused uproar at the Gulf Cup.

UAE’s Omar Abdulrahman (l) and Ali Mabkhout (2nd l) caused uproar at the Gulf Cup.

Mahmoud Khamis

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.

LOSERS

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.

Alberto Zaccheroni

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.

Jassem Yaqoub

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.

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Alberto Zaccheroni declares door is open for 'all players' after UAE's King's Cup adventure

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Alberto Zaccheroni (2nd r) with his UAE technical staff at the 2018 King's Cup (UAE FA).

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.

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