The UAE Football Association have confirmed clubs from their nation will not pull out of the 2018 AFC Champions League, despite voicing “strong reservations” about the AFC’s repeat decision to enforce home-and-away meetings with teams from pariah-state Qatar.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia lead a bloc that severed all relations with the Doha government in June because of its alleged support for terrorism. This has forced strain on relations between the neighbours, at all levels.
Demands were made in the wake of November’s ACL draw that games against Qatar Stars League-outfits must be played at neutral venues. But after a thorough review, the continental governing body reconfirmed on Saturday in a letter that the existing format would remain.
The UAE FA reluctantly accepted this stance on Sunday, sending out an official statement which read: “The UAE Football Association will provide all facilities and support to our teams participating in the 2018 AFC Champions League, despite our strong reservations about the way, and the mechanism by which, the decision was reached.
“We are keen to cooperate with the AFC and announce the participation of our clubs in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
“We will coordinate with the clubs on all details.
“We will also hold a meeting with the AFC to ensure safe participation of the teams.”
Teams from the UAE and Qatar are guaranteed to meet each other in all four groups in the west if Al Ain and Al Gharafa win Tuesday’s play-offs.
Clashes between sides from Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to be played at neutral venues, with the political situation deemed too hostile.
Even in the white-hot arena of competitive sport, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ losses.
For the UAE and their conservative new coach Alberto Zaccheroni, a moribund penalty defeat to outsiders Oman in the Gulf Cup final is to be banded firmly in the latter category. The oppressive negatively surrounding the Whites reached its nadir during another 120 scoreless minutes in Kuwait City, being outplayed by an uncelebrated nation who chose not to select their only star – veteran Al Hilal goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Less than three months into his tenure, the pressure is on for the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan tactician to show he is the man to lead the Whites to glory at January 2019’s Asian Cup. If this stodgy and strangulated approach is the blueprint moving forward, a decision has been made that success can only be earned in mind-numbing fashion when Asia’s heavyweight descend on the Emirates.
Al Ain creator Omar Abdulrahman is the obvious villain from a harrowing showpiece in which flimsy efforts from 12 yards during the 90th minute and subsequent shootout denied his side unmerited victory. Questions about the gifted Amoory’s character will now only increase in volume at a time in which he has only six months left on his contract and a move abroad should be near.
Yet, a third triumph in the regional tournament would not have been warranted. Neither on the evidence of last night or in a tournament at large which has included a perfect five clean sheets but no goals from open play.
The Whites’ draining results could be mistaken for digital code; 1-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0. In more brutal terms, a side containing several of Asia’s most-celebrated players scored once in roughly 510 minutes of action – even this coming from 12 yards by Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout in the opening 1-0 victory against Oman in Group A.
This analogue output is troubling when the talent at hand is considered. Abdulrahman and – still at the time of writing – Jazira forward Ahmed Khalil are recent AFC Players of the Year, while Mabkhout raced to top-scorer honours during the preceding 2014 edition and 2015’s Asian Cup.
That all three came into the competition with pre-existing injury problems is mitigation. So is the fact electric winger Ismail Al Hammadi was only fit enough to be an impact substitute following a serious knee problem of his own.
The timing of these blows was unfortunate for Zaccheroni, as was the felling of dynamic Jazira full-back Mohammed Fawzi who is a huge fillip to his 3-4-3 formation.
Yet, some of the choices on show in Kuwait in the past few weeks must have caused concern to a UAE Football Association which saw three coaches at the helm in a tumultuous 2017.
Zaccheroni singularly failed to fill the gap left by yet another injury to midfield conductor, Amer Abdulrahman. In his absence, there were spells – repeated for much of last night’s second half – in which an unnecessary three defensive midfielders were on the pitch.
It was also alarming to see his squad not include burgeoning Jazira playmaker Khalfan Mubarak as an invigorating option off the substitutes’ bench.
None of this is a surprise. Zaccheroni’s dour reputation has been earned over decades.
The UAE FA have entered into a Faustian bargain with the 64-year-old. Success will come with severe boredom.
This is clearly a cost they are willing to pay.
Coach Alberto Zaccheroni is convinced his dogged UAE charges have shown signs that Friday’s Gulf Cup decider against Oman will see them belatedly burst into life.
The Italian’s first tournament in charge has witnessed a defensively re-cast side make the final without conceding a goal in their four matches – the latest clean sheet coming in Tuesday’s eventual penalty shootout success against Iraq in Kuwait City – and scoring just once, Al Jazira predator Ali Mabkhout’s spot-kick in December 22’s Group A-opening 1-0 win against their next opponents.
This miserly approach is a stark contrast to 2013’s electric victory achieved by the then ascendant ‘Golden Generation’ in Bahrain and has drawn some criticism within the region for its lack of entertainment.
المؤتمر الصحفي التقديمي للسيد زاكيروني للمباراة النهائية لكأس الخليج 23 في الكويت https://t.co/miRPfYoIGB
— UAEFA (@uaefa_ae) January 4, 2018
Yet there is confidence within the camp that the likes of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman and his fellow attackers can finally fire the Whites to a cherished third-ever triumph.
“We played 120 minutes, which is a big burden on the players,” said Zaccheroni of the mid-week semifinal, settled from 12 yards by the unlikely figure of Al Wahda right wing-back Mohammed Al Menhali.
“The Oman team is well-organised and is playing a modern tactic, putting pressure on their opponent. But firstly, there is a gradual development in the performance of the UAE and this is important.”
Oman are currently rebuilding under the Netherlands’ Pim Verbeek after an early exit from World Cup 2018-qualifying. Legendary goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi was not selected for this competition by the nation ranked 101 by FIFA, 28 places behind the UAE. The two countries have previous at this stage, Ismail Matar earning
icon status when his goal at Zayed Sports City saw the 2007 hosts prevail.
Oman also lost the 2004 decider, but succeeded at home in 2009 when they shocked Saudi Arabia. In this edition, victories against Kuwait and the second-string Saudis saw them edge the UAE for top spot in their pool. An own goal from Bahrain’s Mahdi Abdul Jabbar then earned Tuesday’s 1-0 last-four win.
“I am very proud of the team and happy to reach the final,” said Verbeek. “It was an excellent display.”
With a third Gulf Cup-triumph in 11 years in view for the UAE, we look at the nation’s previous trailblazers.
This was the tournament in which Ismail Matar made real on his incredible promise. The UAE knew they had a gem on their hands four years prior when he was named best player at the 2003 World Youth Championships, a competition also featuring future greats in Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Argentina’s Carlos Tevez.
By the time of the 18th running of the Gulf Cup on home soil, the Al Wahda forward was ready to explode. Matar dominated from the off, striking three times in the group stage – including a last-gasp winner in the final match against Kuwait. He was the hero again in the semi-final against giants Saudi Arabia, hitting a 91st-minute clincher. The best was to come in the final versus Oman, finding the bottom corner in a 1-0 victory as the UAE won their first-ever trophy.
The hallowed ‘Golden Generation’ etched their name into the Gulf Cup’s history in Bahrain. Fresh from acquitting themselves well at the London 2012 Olympics, a squad packed full of burgeoning talents under the paternal care of coach Mahdi Ali was determined to lift another trophy for their nation.
Their number included men who have become household names in the region, with the attacking trio of Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman, Al Jazira ace Ali Mabkhout and – then – emerging Al Ahli forward Ahmed
Khalil leading the way. They won all three Group A-matches to a combined score of 7-2, before Khalil edged a tight semi-final against Kuwait. A tense final in a cold Riffa saw Iraq downed 2-1 in extra-time, Ahli flyer Ismail Al Hammadi smartly slotting in Amer Abdulrahman’s 107th-minute pass.