The UAE’s troubled preparations for January’s Asian Cup are set to ratchet up on Thursday (20:00 UAE) when they meet Honduras in Barcelona for the first of two friendlies this international break.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s tournament hosts snapped a five-match winless run last time out when they thrashed minnows Laos 3-0 on September 11. A squad will now compete against far-superior opposition at Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys that has been refreshed by the presence – from the start – of electric Al Jazira playmaker Khalfan Mubarak, youngsters such as defender Khalifa Al Hammadi and an Omar Abdulrahman getting up to speed after his protracted switch to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.
Hassan Suhail, a Whites great and current member of the UAE Football Association’s technical committee, is encouraged by what he’s witnessed.
He said: “The two friendly matches against Honduras and Venezuela (Tuesday) are beneficial to the team.
“The competition will be fierce, as each players wants to fight for his place in the final squad for the Asian Cup.”
Honduras are ranked 62nd by FIFA, 18 places above the UAE.
There should have been no better time for Ahmed Khalil to enter his prime.
The UAE’s first recipient of the hallowed AFC Player of the Year gong, and joint-top scorer across the globe in World Cup 2018 qualifying, will be 27-years old when January 2019’s Asian Cup comes along. On home soil, to boot.
These are meant to be the salad days for any elite striker; the point when explosive youth and penalty-box knowhow intersect to prolific effect.
Instead, Khalil heads into Thursday’s friendly against Honduras in Barcelona with more to prove than anybody else in Alberto Zaccheroni’s dysfunctional Whites set-up.
Extend his bewildering year then, or in Tuesday’s meeting with Venezuela, and the case for him playing a major role in the Emirates next year recedes even more.
Especially when rumours about the imminent naturalisation of record-breaking, Argentina-born centre forward Sebastian Tagliabue – the Arabian Gulf League’s top foreign goal grabber of all time, at Al Wahda – refuse to dampen.
In an unprecedented turn of events, Khalil has bounced between boyhood club Al Ahli, Al Jazira, Al Ain and back to the rebadged Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club since April 2017.
From the start of 2017/18 until the present day, 15 appearances in the top flight have generated just four goals.
In the same period, Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout has scored 19 times in 21 matches.
For Tagliabue, he’s notched 28 goals in 26 matches. Some going.
Khalil’s mid-career sojourn has not been all his own doing. An ambitious move to 2017 Club World Cup entrants Jazira ended in a rancorous contract wrangle.
A mid-season escape to Al Ain saw him enter, undercooked, into a winning outfit.
This, however, does not excuse what has followed back at Rashid Stadium.
Argentinians Mauro Diaz and Emiliano Vecchio offer a healthy production line. They’ve contributed to Ecuador striker Jaime Ayovi’s six goals during seven run-outs.
Khalil, in contrast, has collected just 134, goalless, minutes of action. His solitary ‘assist’ for Moldova winger Henrique Luvannor in October 4’s 2-1 win at Ittihad Kalba was a mishit shot.
Every forward under the miserly Zaccheroni has struggled to find the back of the net. For Mabkhout, this proclivity to underwhelm has only appeared on international duty.
With the Italian supremo forced to ditch his trademark 3-4-3 formation and utilise a familiar 4-2-3-1, competition for places has become that much fiercer.
Reputation, alone, shouldn’t be enough to win starts when the continent’s finest come to the UAE. At the moment, sadly, it’s all Khalil has.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has declared his raft of international absentees is no excuse for not putting in an “honourable performance” when they aim to get back to winning ways in the Arabian Gulf Cup at Al Jazira.
The Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup holders are victims of their own success for Wednesday’s Group B-encounter. Their squad has been decimated by six UAE call-ups, plus striker Marcus Berg linking up with Sweden and midfielder Hussein El Shahat being picked by Egypt.
Speaking before the clash at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, Mamic refused to countenance this as an excuse against opponents who’ll be missing five Whites stars of their own.
“We are missing more than 50 per cent,” said Mamic, whose side sit in the fourth-and-final quarter-final qualifying spot after defeat last month to Al Nasr.
“But our rival also lacks the efforts of several international players. We strive to provide an honourable performance.”
In Tuesday night’s action, Jaime Ayovi scored and assisted as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club won 2-0 at Al Wasl in Group A.
Ayovi’s back heel sent Argentinian playmaker Emiliano Vecchio into the clear to slot home the 64th-minute opener. A flying header followed late on from the Ecuador striker to seal the points.
In the same pool, Brazilian midfielder Leonardo’s 25-yard rocket earned a 1-0 win for leaders Al Wahda at Ajman.
Ex-Reims midfielder Diego opened his Al Dhafra account with a brace as Emirates Club were beaten 4-2 in Group B.