Shockwaves were sent through UAE football on Tuesday after leading striker Ahmed Khalil agreed a stunning early release from his monster deal signed last summer at Al Jazira, with boyhood side Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club competing to bring him back against Al Ain and Al Nasr.
Khalil, 26, inked a four-year deal worth Dh18 million per annum in July once he allowed his contract at – the now defunct – Al Ahli to expire. But the marquee arrival’s time in Abu Dhabi has been tarnished by contractual issues and ongoing problems with fitness – his last of two scoreless Arabian Gulf League-games came on September 22.
No official confirmation arrived from Jazira on Tuesday night. But Shabab Al Ahli, the Boss and Blue Wave are in the mix.
Senior figures at Rashid Stadium have been in talks with Khalil’s camp for several days and remain confident of a positive conclusion.
Cosmin Olaroiu’s side have failed to register during their previous three Arabian Gulf League matches.
Further reports in Arabic media have also stated Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal and an unnamed Chinese Super League-outfit could enter the pursuit.
Khalil’s stock remains high after he scored a joint global high of 16 goals during the UAE’s unsuccessful attempt to make World Cup 2018.
If new UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni’s first two matches have taught him anything, it is the irreplaceable status of Asia’s goal poacher extraordinaire Ali Mabkhout.
The striker was curiously allowed to notch for Al Jazira on Arabian Gulf Cup-duty at the same time as Friday’s frustrating debut loss to Haiti, after previously leaving the Italian’s camp because of injury.
In his absence, a combination of the woodwork and blunt finishing took the shine off a solid opening display. Tuesday night against a weakened Uzbekistan that featured just domestic call-ups, it took 15 minutes for the returning 2015 Asian Cup top scorer to exorcise this anguish.
Set free by a deft pass from resurgent centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman, there was zero doubt from anyone inside Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium that a 31st international goal in 53 appearances was to follow. Visiting goalkeeper and skipper Ignatiy Nesterov was skipped around with nonchalant ease, prior to the ball being slid into an open net.
This was the highlight of a nondescript clash otherwise detailed by a first airing of the trademark 3-4-3 formation Zaccheroni utilised to lift the 1998/99 Serie A crown with AC Milan. A rigidity rarely present under predecessor Edgardo Bauza was also tangible, admittedly against limited opponents, in these nascent steps towards January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil.
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“It’s only my second match,” Zaccheroni commented. “I told my players to play as a team, and to give 100 per cent on the pitch and come out with a good performance.
“We played a compact game tonight and were better organised that the first match.”
The UAE slipped into their new shape and deservedly went ahead when Mabkhout characteristically converted the friendly’s first chance.
Little more of note occurred in the opening stanza prior to Lokomotiv Tashkent centre forward Marat Bikmaev spurning a great chance at the back post in injury time.
The Whites continued to exert control after the break, without their attack sparking again. A worry for another day now Zaccheroni has chalked up a victory.
He said: “For me, there is more to do with our team. We need to take this result forward and keep improving at every game.”
Henk ten Cate is without a slew of stars as two teams meet in Round 3 of the Arabian Gulf Cup hoping to ignite their campaigns.
UAE giants Al Jazira and Al Nasr are joint top of Group A with a win and a draw from their opening two fixtures, yet they have struggled in the league. The Blue Wave are fifth in the Arabian Gulf League with champions Jazira sixth – both sides trailing in the wake of early-season pacesetters Al Wasl and Al Ain.
Both teams have players unavailable due to the national team’s friendly with Haiti on the same evening in Al Ain, but Ten Cate is proud of his young starlets who have been picked in new Whites coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s maiden squad.
Ahmed Al Attas, Mohammed Jamal and Khalafan Mubarak could feature in the Garden City, while Jazira stalwarts Ali Khasif, Fares Juma and Mohamed Fawzi are also part of former Japan and AC Milan coach Zaccheroni’s plans.
Ali Mabkhout, however, could feature for the Pride of Abu Dhabi after returning to his club to continue treatment that saw him only return to action in last week’s goalless AGL draw with Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club after almost a month on the sidelines.
“Our preparation for the next game is a little different because we miss several players, most notably Mbarak Boussoufa, Ali Khasif, Fares Juma, Mohamed Fawzi, Mohamed Jamal, Khalfan Mubarak and Ahmed Al Attas for international calls,” said former Ajax coach Ten Cate.
“Ali Mabkhout has joined the team training after the UAE national team allowed him to leave the camp in Al Ain to complete the treatment programme he started with us.”
He praised the progress of young trio Mubarak, Jamal and Al Attas, as well as emerging youngsters at the club.
“I have always been given opportunities to Ahmed, Mohammed and Khalafan,” he added.
“They are now in the UAE national team. I am also happy with the great development of Mohammed Al Attas, Salem Al Eedi and Eissa Al Otaiba this season and I will give them more opportunities in the future because they deserve it and because they need more experience and maturity.”
Despite their early season AGL struggles, both sides have found solace in the League Cup, and will hope to gain three points that would send them clear at the top of the group, while piling the misery on the team and coach that loses at Zabeel Stadium.
“We have already faced Al Ain in this competition and we won against them despite the big absences in the squad, so I am not worried about my team’s readiness to face Al Nasr,” Ten Cate added of a 2-1 win earned in Round 2 that halted a two-game losing sequence.
“I am confident that the players who will be selected for the match will use the opportunity in the best possible way, and will face the opponent in a spirit of combat to achieve the desired result.”
Cesare Prandelli’s side, meanwhile, disposed of Ajman 3-0 in the Italian’s first game in charge of the Blue Wave in September before being held to a goalless draw at Hatta last month.
Prandelli also must deal with the absence of national team players, including Tariq Ahmed and Mahmoud Khamis, but he congratulated Khalifa Mubarak and Jassim Yaqoub on their call-ups into the Whites squad to face Haiti and Uzbekistan on Tuesday.
for inviting them to the national team which also includes Tariq Ahmed and Mahmoud Khamis in preparation for the friendly and friendly matches of Haiti and Uzbekistan, stressing that this is a certificate of confidence and success for all employees within Al-Nasr football system.
“We are still suffering from injuries and absences, which always deprive us, but we will continue to work with new ideas and prepare more than one alternative in case of emergency,” said the former Italy coach, who will also be without Joan Oumari, while Salem Saleh and summer signing Marcelo Cirino, Masoud Sulaiman and Mubarak Saeed all face late fitness tests.
“I’m here to work for a two-year project and I’m looking to find factors that are always motivating players to develop their performance and reach the top of technical and physical readiness,” he added. “Everyone here is working hard to reach their goal.”
Elsewhere in Group A on Friday, Hatta, in third, will look to steal a march into the top two, when they go to Hatta, a place below them.
In Group B, meanwhile, Emirates Club will hope to leapfrog Dibba Al Fujairah into second place with victory in Ras Al Khaimah.