Alberto Zaccheroni must still prove he’s the coach to lead 2019 Asian Cup hosts into January’s main event after a mixed international break for the UAE.
Here are the talking points after a 2-0 reversal to Trinidad and Tobago, plus a 3-0 win versus lowly Laos.
ZACCH’S BACK IN GOOD BOOKS?
An eventful international break has ended for Zaccheroni – and the beleaguered UAE boss finally has some breathing space.
Last month’s embarrassing goalless draw against Andorra necessitated an instant retort. Thursday’s opening friendly instead saw an alarming loss to Trinidad and Tobago, who had not played since April and could only train 24 hours before the friendly in Catalonia after alleged promises from a match agent fell through.
A fifth-successive winless match sparked a public vote of confidence from the UAE Football Association as rumours swirled of the Italian’s imminent demise.
Never has a meeting with minnows Laos – ranked 178th by FIFA, 101 places below the Whites – meant so much. To Zaccheroni’s relief, positives were mined on Tuesday from what would usually be considered a ‘lose-lose situation’.
The reintegration of 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout (2) and 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman after January’s Gulf Cup shenanigans accelerated with their goals. A change of formation from his trademark 3-4-1-2 formation to a familiar 4-2-3-1 also brought much-needed fluidity.
These shoots of recovery must now blossom in next month’s exacting meetings with Honduras and Venezuela (October 11 and 16 in Barcelona).
BUT FOR HOW LONG?
It will take true conviction for the UAE FA to stand by their man if the imminent friendlies go wrong.
Former AC Milan, Juventus and Japan tactician Zaccheroni has been around the game long enough to know a win against Laos can only offer temporary respite.
He deserves praise, of a kind, for the belated change of tactics versus the minnows.
But asking these players to perform defensively was always dogmatic lunacy – from both Zaccheroni and the bureaucrats who picked him.
Emerging Al Ain playmaker Rayan Yaslam and centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman added a creative edge versus Laos that has been absent for much of 2018. Playing twin defensive midfielders in Khamis Esmail and Majed Hassan just doesn’t work.
Dropping the increasingly error prone Mohanad Salem was also an adroit move. Boss club-mate Ismail Ahmed remains the evergreen part of a centre-back duo whose combined age is 68.
Change has come. With less than 120 days to January 5’s continental opener on home soil, however, consistency of selection should have already occurred.
The desire to get free hits against Andorra and Trinidad backfired. It is also illogical to draw tangible conclusions from cannon fodder like Laos.
The clock continues to tick.
AMOORY’S FITNESS TEST
Omar Abdulrahman returns to Saudi Arabia with a goal under his belt – and a special one, at that.
The new Al Hilal superstar fired in a 25-yard rocket against Laos to end an international drought that stretches back to March 2016. After his disappearing act against Trinidad, and he was not the only one culpable in white, this was a timely reminder of enduring class.
After a summer of distractions about his long-winded defection from Al Ain, now comes the real work.
The Middle East’s playmaker extraordinaire must get up to speed at the Saudi Professional League champions after two club games in which only flashes of the usual genius were exhibited after a summer full of distraction.
Amoory’s country needs him – more than ever.
Al Nasr coach Ivan Jovanovic has challenged his troops to bank the feel-good factor from their Arabian Gulf Cup double and use it to halt an awful start in the top flight.
Much was expected of the reshaped Blue Wave when the Arabian Gulf League kicked off last month, but a side containing ex-France midfielder Yohan Cabaye slipped to a disappointing opening 1-0 home loss to Ajman.
The international break then witnessed a morale-boosting pair of wins in the Cup against Emirates Club and Al Ain.
“Despite the differences in the competition and the different motivations of each team, winning two-consecutive matches gives the players more confidence to correct the poor start against Ajman in the first round,” said Jovanovic, whose team travels to Sharjah on Friday.
“Every game is a new test for the team. Our ambition is always to win.
“We have to fight in every game to continue the victories and invest momentum that the team has earned.”
Friday’s other fixtures are headlined by an early relegation battle between promoted Ittihad Kalba and visitors Emirates.
17:35 Ittihad Kalba v Emirates Club
17:35 Dibba Al Fujairah v Al Wahda
20:15 Bani Yas v Al Wasl
20:15 Sharjah v Al Nasr
17:35 Al Ain v Al Dhafra
17:40 Al Jazira v Fujairah
20:15 Ajman v Shabab Al Ahli
UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni is “very brave” for taking the pragmatic decision to ditch the faltering Asian Cup hosts’ usual tactics for Tuesday’s pressure-relieving 3-0 friendly win against Laos, according to goalkeeper Ali Khaseif.
The Whites supremo’s position came under intense scrutiny after Thursday’s demoralising 2-0 reversal to undercooked Trinidad and Tobago made it five matches without victory.
A switch away from his trademark 3-4-1-2 formation to the Arabian Gulf League’s ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 resulted in a double from Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout and thunderbolt from 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman.
“There is no team in the Arabian Gulf League playing three at the back,” said Pride of Abu Dhabi skipper Khaseif, who was restored to the international XI. “We tried to accommodate the plan, but couldn’t apply it.
“We do not want to put the blame on the coach or the players, as we are all in one boat.
“Everyone saw how Zaccheroni changed the plan after the Trinidad game and everyone saw how that reflected in today’s game. It is not a shame that the trainer is changing things.
“I think it’s very brave and it is rare to find a coach who can give up his plan and change it.”
Preparations for January’s continental competition will continue with further friendlies against Honduras on October 11 and Venezuela on October 16. The UAE will again be based in Barcelona.
Zaccheroni revealed this step-up in class has been designed to gently move his squad into peak condition.
He said: “We deliberately chose weak teams because the main goal at the beginning of the camp is to build up the identity of the team and the way of the game. We chose humble opponents to apply the required players.
“Our performance [against Laos] was distinctive, the lines converged and we applied high pressure, I am satisfied. We created many opportunities and didn’t convert them, but we will work on that for coming matches.”