UAE stalwart Walid Abbas has expressed sadness after paternal coach Mahdi Ali called time on his transformational spell in charge, bemoaning the loss of a special man who was “so important for me as a footballer and for us”.
Ali, 51, announced his resignation from a post he’d held since August 2012 in a post-match press conference following last Tuesday’s 2-0 loss in Australia, which left already slim hopes of making World Cup 2018 in tatters.
Outmoded tactics and stale selections dogged qualifying, but the ex-Whites midfielder had taken the ‘Golden Generation’ on an odyssey which began by winning the AFC U-19 Championship in 2008 and peaked with third place at the 2015 Asian Cup.
“About the national team, we are sad because Mahdi Ali has left,” said versatile Al Ahli defender Abbas, who at 31 is too old for the success in the junior ranks.
“Maybe we were unlucky during these last two games. I think there is still a chance and we will fight for this chance. Of course, he [Ali] was so important for me as a footballer and for us – he was a good coach, hard worker.
“It is sad when someone leaves the national team after seven or eight years [including stints with Under-20s and U-23s].
“He said to us that he didn’t want to leave, but this is life and you have to change sometimes.”
The UAE Football Association is currently assessing options to replace Ali. Alejandro Sabella, who led Argentina to World Cup 2014’s final, and ex-Al Nasr boss Ivan Jovanovic are targets.
A trio of fixtures remain on the Road to Russia, beginning with June 13’s must-win clash in Thailand. Would a change of leadership revive dreams of qualification?
“Maybe, maybe,” 69-cap Abbas replied. “Maybe he will change the system, maybe we need time to adapt to his way of playing – we are going to see what happens.”
Abbas had a quiet night at centre-back on Saturday as his toothless former club Al Shabab were easily beaten 2-0 in the Arabian Gulf Cup’s showpiece. He challenged his Ahli team-mates to use the win as a confidence booster for their ongoing 2017 AFC Champions League campaign.
He said: “Of course we are happy, as we won the game after the international break. It was a tough game and some of the players were a bit tired because of the travelling [from Australia with the UAE].
“We wanted this trophy and we got it. It should be motivation for us for the rest of the season because we have the AFC Champions League now.
“We need to focus on that, as we must qualify for the second round.”
Javier Aguirre insists he has no time for rumours surrounding his Al Wahda future and says is happy to have been gainfully employed in professional football for four decades.
The former Atletico Madrid chief’s contract expires in June and reports in Romania on Sunday surfaced linking Steaua Bucharest manager Laurentiu Reghecampf with a move to Al Nahyan Stadium as a replacement for the Mexican this summer.
The 41-year-old Reghecampf previously led Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal to the final of the 2014 AFC Champions League, where they were defeated 1-0 on aggregate by Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers.
Reghecampf returned to take charge of the Red and Blues for a second stint in 2015 but Sport.ro claims he travelled to Doha in February to hold talks with Wahda officials during the club’s opening Champions League game against Qatar’s Al Rayyan in Group D – which also features his old club, Hilal.
“Of course I heard about the rumours about a new coach but I have no time to distract myself because my team needs me, 100 per cent,” Aguirre said at his press conference ahead of the Clarets’ return to Arabian Gulf League action tomorrow against Emirates Club following the international break.
“It’s part of my job. I’m 58 this year and I was 18 when I signed my first contract, so I’ve been involved in professional football for 40 years. Thank god I’ve had a job every year.”
Aguirre, who managed Mexico at the 2002 World Cup and has also taken charge of Asia heavyweights Japan, has enjoyed a largely successful spell in his two-year spell in Abu Dhabi.
He led Wahda to the Arabian Gulf Cup last season and back into the Champions League this year for the first time since 2011. But, with his contract rapidly running down, his future is a topic of hot debate in the capital.
Wahda travel to the relegation-threatened Falcons tomorrow and face a busy April.
The visit of AGL champions Al Ahli and trip to take on joint record President’s Cup holders Sharjah are sandwiched in between a trip to Hilal and the home fixture against Rayyan in the Champions League, while they close out the month with a daunting voyage to Al Ain.
And Aguirre added: “I have to give the owners good results and if not that’s it, you’re out. Even with good results you need to change, it’s all part of your development as a coach. We will see of course. We face a tough April and then we will see what happens in May.”
Al Ahli boss Cosmin Olaroiu is worried his sizeable UAE contingent will suffer a hangover from their World Cup 2018 misery when they battle Al Shabab in Saturday night’s Arabian Gulf Cup final.
Eight members of the squad which lost 2-0 to Japan and Australia during the international break returned to club duty with the Red Knights on Thursday.
They completed the 14-hour flight back from Sydney in dejected mood, with the Whites’ hopes of making Russia next year in ruins and long-term mentor Mahdi Ali resigning.
This has added complexity to a clash at Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium in which Olaroiu’s Arabian Gulf League champions should be heavily favoured against last term’s defeated Cup finalists, judging by their recent dismal run of two wins in 16 matches under two different coaches.
“Certainly, the psychological state because of the diminished chances of the UAE team to qualify is something which is difficult for the players, as well as the physical effort given in their two matches against Japan and Australia,” the 47-year-old Romanian bemoaned.
“I think they had two tough games. But you should be fully prepared to play a final. How can we do that in just two days for a match of this size? I do not think that these conditions will offer a good show for the public.”
The decision by the floundering Hawks in January to ditch Dutch tactician Fred Rutten and bring in Valencia stalwart Miroslav Djukic has not elicited in an upturn in results.
Under the Serbian, they have conceded 16 goals in just five matches from which they have lost four and drawn one.
Shabab headed to Doha during the top-flight’s sojourn for a brief training camp, in which they played out a goalless draw with Al Gharafa last Friday. Djukic hoped this break would have an enlivening effect.
“This is the most important game of the season for Al Shabab and we will try to win,” said the 51-year-old. “We play a team of high potential and the game will not be easy.
“The team worked hard in the outside camp and it was completed in a readiness to win. The team has done well since the beginning of this tournament and we will try to ignore the past negative results. The biggest pressure is on the Al Ahli, because they are the favourites to win.”
Fitness problems are not the sole reserve of the Red Knights. An ankle knock means 10-goal AG Cup top scorer and Moldova forward Henrique Luvannor is a serious doubt for Shabab.
“Luvannor is suffering from an ankle problem and we do not know if he is ready to play, but we will wait until the day of the match to decide,” said Djukic. “But the team does not depend on one player.”
A goal inside 13 seconds from Brazilian anchorman Denilson was enough to condemn Shabab to defeat against Al Wahda in this fixture a year ago. Occasional UAE full-back Manei Mohamed, 27, was convinced hard graft this evening will create a different outcome.
He said: “Cup matches are all about performance inside the pitch. We worked hard to get to the final and we must continue working hard to become champions.”
For Ahli centre-back Salmeen Khamis, he wanted to reward his club’s fan with a third AG Cup-win.
“We are working to please our supporters by beating Al Shabab and winning the title,” said the 25-year-old about this repeat of 2011/12’s decider. “The fans have been behind us all season, and we have to pay them back.”