UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni has sensationally chosen to exile star duo Omar Abdulrahman of Al Ain and Ali Mabkhout of Al Jazira from the first squad selected since their controversial infractions at the Gulf Cup.
2016 AFC Player of the Year Abdulrahman, 26, and 2015 Asian Cup top marksman Mabkhout, 27, were given four-match domestic suspensions on January 23 after they had been found guilty of leaving the Whites’ hotel in Kuwait City without permission from 20:15-22:30 the night before January 5’s dismal penalty-shootout defeat to lowly Oman in the final. Utility-man Mohammed Fawzi, 27, was also found to have been part of the incident, but escaped a ban as he was unavailable for the game.
The leading pair – who saw appeals rejected by the UAE Football Association – had both expected to feature in the 24-man roster chosen for the 2018 King’s Cup in Thailand, set to run from March 22-25. News of their snubs on Wednesday came as a shock to them, with no warnings issued.
This headline-grabbing decision to sideline two of Asia’s finest players was left to Zaccheroni by the governing body. The ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan tactician has insisted on ditching them as further punishment for their behaviour.
With less than a year left to January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil, this call may have serious repercussions. Mabkhout and Abdulrahman pledged their continued commitment to the UAE on Twitter in January.
Elsewhere, Zaccheroni’s selection features first call-ups for emerging Jazira defender Mohammed Al Attas and lightning Sharjah forward Saif Rashid.
Al Attas, 20, has earned rave reviews playing across the backline. Rashid, 23, impressed scouts in the 3-1 win versus Al Ain.
The UAE will meet Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik’s Slovakia on March 22. Either Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon or the hosts await three days later, depending on results.
Proud Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic praised his troops for silencing the fevered 90,000-strong crowd at Tehran’s daunting Azadi Stadium – but is aware the “time has come to win” after they registered a fourth-successive draw in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
The Boss showed tremendous character to rebound from Senegalese forward Mame Thiam’s generous first-half penalty for Esteghlal. Their valiant efforts were rewarded with less than 15 minutes left when Japan utility man Tsukasa Shiotani curled a sublime effort with his weaker right foot past Hossein Hosseini to stun the partisan support crammed into one of the world’s largest stadiums.
This moved the winless 2002/03 champions onto four points in a tight Group D, two points behind Monday’s hosts and Michael Laudrup’s Al Rayyan following their impressive 2-1 triumph against 2017’s beaten finalists Al Hilal.
Victory against the latter-mentioned outfit is a pressing need when the competition resumes on April 2.
“A positive result for us in front of 90,000 fans and I think all the Group D teams are still there,” said Mamic, whose troops had played out a rollercoaster 2-2 draw at home versus the same opponents last week.
“There are only two games left and the time has come to win to ensure we qualify for the knockouts.
“I was very happy with the atmosphere in the stadium. We witnessed a massive crowd and any football player would love that.
“It’s hard to experience that in every game, and I talked with my players before the game to get into the match and have fun.
“The truth is that I have followed several matches of Esteghlal and collected a lot of information about the opponent before the meeting.
“It is normal for the coach to analyse the strengths and weaknesses and then build the method.
“It was not easy at this ground, but my team did well and deserve to be congratulated.”
Opposite number Winfried Schafer had won the President’s Cup, Arabian Gulf Cup and Arabian Gulf Super Cup at Al Ain from 2007-09. He was impressed with his former charge’s “strong desire”.
He said: “Al Ain against Esteghlal was a very good game.
“In the first half, we managed to put high pressure on Al Ain and managed to get the lead, but in the second half the opponent showed a strong desire to equalise.”
Al Ain will next look to protect their four-point lead in the Arabian Gulf League when they visit distant holders Al Jazira on Saturday.
A depleted Al Jazira were denied a valuable victory in their quest to escape Group A from the 2018 AFC Champions League when Farzad Hatami nodded in Tractor Sazi’s first goal to secure a 1-1 draw.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi travelled to Tabriz for the return fixture from last week’s goalless stalemate without a number of injured and suspended stars, this list being headlined by UAE strikers Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Al Attas. Brazilian forward Romarinho led the line in their absence and he plundered the 44th-minute opener, against the run of play.
The summer addition from Qatar’s El Jaish latched onto a long ball from experienced defender Musallem Fayez and lashed in a second goal in four continental games.
Tuesday’s hosts at Yadegar-e Emam Stadium were desperate to secure the victory required to boost waning hopes of progression to the round of 16. After several chances went begging, towering striker Hatami nodded in an inviting cross from Ehsan Pahlevan – who had earlier shot just wide of the far post when clear through.
Tractor bombarded the visitor’s goal in the final minutes, UAE No1 Ali Khaseif performing redoubtably to keep them out.
This result left the bottom-placed hosts on the brink of elimination.
Jazira remain firmly in the hunt for two of three qualification spots with Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah and Al Gharafa – whom they meet next in Doha on April 3.
Al Wasl 0-1 Persepolis
Al Wasl’s return to the AFC Champions League after a decade away was guaranteed to end in the group stage thanks to Kamal Kamyabinia’s lone goal for Iran’s Persepolis on Tuesday.
Kamyabinia’s 37th-minute header inflicted a fourth defeat from four games in Group C, leaving the Cheetahs to lick their wounds.
Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s men next travel to Qatar to face Xavi’s Al Sadd on April 2 knowing they cannot progress.