Former Juventus star Paulo Sousa emerges as Al Ain target after abrupt exit of Zoran Mamic

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Portugal great Paulo Sousa has reportedly emerged as an early target for Al Ain after history making coach Zoran Mamic’s painful mid-season departure.

Mamic, 47, thanked the Boss in a lengthy Twitter post for “the amazing memories we made together” and confirmed his wildly successful two-year tenure at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium had come to an abrupt end late on Tuesday, six months before his deal’s expiry. This followed several days of fevered speculation that he will imminently be appointed by Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal, because of their ongoing failure to get Jorge Jesus to commit his future beyond June.

The ex-Croatia defender, who Al Ain claimed on Wednesday was instead “taking some rest because of the pressures experienced through management”, was poached from Riyadh’s Al Nassr in February 2017. He would go on to secure a club-first Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup double last May, plus heroically lead the Boss to a 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid in December’s Club World Cup showpiece in Abu Dhabi.

Portuguese newspaper A Bola stated that Sousa, 48, “has a chance to train” the Garden City-outfit. The well-travelled ex-Juventus and Borussia Dortmund midfielder has been out of work since a mutual departure was negotiated with China’s Tianjin Quanjian in October, after less than a year in charge.

August’s sale of influential Belgium centre midfielder Axel Witsel to BVB sparked a slide that saw Sousa oversee a potential relegation fight. Tianjin did, however, make the AFC Champions League quarter-finals under him.

Sousa reportedly this week rejected the chance to succeed Aitor Karanka at the Championship’s Nottingham Forest.

The suave tactician made his name at Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester City at the turn of the decade. But he failed to gain promotion to the Premier League at all three, prior to embarking on a nomadic run of clubs.

This period included winning trophies at Hungary’s Videoton and Switzerland’s Basel.

If Sousa does come in at Al Ain, he’ll take over a side temporarily led by ex-Borussia Monchengladbach defender Zeljko Sopic and Ahmed Abdullah.

In a boost for the Boss, they have successfully untangled the complex contractual situation of playmaker Ruben Ribeiro and registered him as replacement for Egypt’s Hussein El Shahat in their four-player foreign quota for the second half of the campaign.

Ribeiro, 31, was one of seven Sporting Lisbon footballers to terminate his contract last June because of a training ground assault by ultras. But this status as a free agent was challenged by the Portuguese giants, preventing him playing in the CWC.

The apparent breakthrough means he will slot in for El Shahat, following last month’s $5 million sale to Al Ahly.

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Al Hilal set sights on Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic as successor if Jorge Jesus departs

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Al Ain’s record-breaking boss Zoran Mamic has entered detailed talks to takeover at Saudi giants Al Hilal after a terminal breakdown in the relationship with Jorge Jesus, putting their Arabian Gulf League title defence in serious jeopardy.

Reverberations were sent through the Middle East late on Sunday night when Al Riyadh stated an ongoing failure to get celebrated ex-Benfica and Sporting Lisbon supremo Jesus to commit his future until November’s finale of the 2019 AFC Champions League, or ink an extension until 2022, had sparked a decision to imminently end his successful seven-month tenure. Further sources have confirmed an announcement about the 64-year-old’s departure is expected in the aftermath of Sunday’s Saudi Professional League outing at Al Feiha.

Mamic, 47, is the chosen successor. He has worked wonders in the Garden City since he was controversially poached from Riyadh’s Al Nassr in February 2017, winning a club-first AGL and President’s Cup double in 2017/18 and then honourably losing 4-1 to Real Madrid in last month’s Club World Cup final.

The ex-Croatia defender has less than six months remaining on his Al Ain deal. It will take a remarkable smoothing out of the fractured relationship between Jesus and Hilal to prevent his departure being confirmed in the coming week.

Mamic revived a squad that had lost its lustre under compatriot Zlatko Dalic after the painful 2016 ACL final loss to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

He currently boasts a 56-per-cent win percentage, plus sees Al Ain sit three points behind shock top-flight leaders Sharjah at the halfway stage – with a game in hand.

The Boss also remained loyal to Mamic in the wake of June 2018’s four-year prison sentence handed out in Croatia for his role in a multi-million-euro abuse of power and graft, related to his spell at Dinamo Zagreb as sporting director and head coach. He disputes the conviction.

If Mamic does leave, it will continue a disruptive winter break.

Influential Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat’s boyhood wish was granted with a $5 million move to Al Ahly. Brazilian forward Caio – named second-best player at the CWC – travelled to Portugal and was widely reported to have inked a free-transfer switch to Benfica upon the expiration of his contract in June.

No replacement has been procured for El Shahat. Esperance de Tunis forward Anice Badri and Levante’s Emmanuel Boateng have been linked, without signing.

This could see CWC specialist addition Tongo Doumbia, a Mali defensive midfielder, added to the four-player foreign quartet.

Al Ain’s resumption in the AGL is penciled in for February 5, against relegation-battlers Emirates Club.

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Asian Cup 2019: UAE rise for Alberto Zaccheroni and Australia miss Tim Cahill in report card

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Hosts UAE stunned holders Australia after Ali Mabkhout gratefully accepted a gift from Milos Degenek, sending the former through to Asian Cup 2019’s semi-finals with a surprise 1-0 victory.

Buoyed by a cauldron atmosphere at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the Socceroos dominated possession and attempts on goal against the side they defeated in 2015’s last-four. But their inaccuracy at both ends on Friday night proved critical when Al Hilal new boy Degenek’s shocking back pass under pressure from substitute Mohamed Abdulrahman allowed the previous edition’s top scorer, Mabkhout, to round goalkeeper Mathew Ryan and slot into an open goal on 68 minutes.

Alberto Zaccheroni’s Whites then defiantly held out, even after 10 minutes of added time. They will now meet Qatar on Tuesday at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium

Here is the report card:

GOOD

Where to begin?: It’s been a tough 15 months at the UAE helm for Zaccheroni.

Friday’s result, however, was a personal triumph for the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan supremo.

Another host of changes, and switch of shape, produced the greatest result of the Italian’s tenure. Plus, the best performance – no matter Australia’s defining profligacy as they became the second-successive champions eliminated by the Whites at the quarter-final stage.

Cutting loose sloppy centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman was key to an improved fluidity, while the outstanding Majed Hassan’s tenacity sped up a team slowed down by the banned Khamis Esmail.

Repeat the formula in the semi final and a repeat of 1996’s run to the showpiece on home soil could occur. After that, Zaccheroni’s tournament victory with Samurai Blue in 2011 shows he knows how to get a team over the line in Asia.

And who would have said that in August after a goalless friendly with minnows Andorra?

The way forward: Socceroos supremo Graham Arnold has been at pains to repeat the mantra that this spell in the UAE was just the first steps on a path to World Cup 2022.

From the embers of this loss, a brighter future should be revealed.

Degenek, at 24-years old, will learn from awful mistakes versus Syria and the UAE after playing zero minutes at World Cup 2018. He’s too good not to succeed, long term.

Elsewhere, youthful wingers Chris Ikonomidis (one goal, four assists) and Awer Mabil (two goals) are emergent stars.

At the other end of the scale, toothless striker Jamie Maclaren and jaded winger Robbie Kruse should have shown they’ve reached the end of their Socceroos journeys.

BAD

Walking wounded: More than 10 minutes of injury time tells its own story.

The UAE were walking wounded at the end, with the remaining players heroically manning the barricades.

Once Zaccheroni steps back and analyses Friday’s display, he’ll note an emerging crisis in defence. Right-back Mohamed Ahmed looked to have become the second-successive player to suffer a serious injury, after centre-back Khalifa Mubarak versus Kyrgyzstan.

Stand-in Fares Juma also had to get treatment several times and could barely stand up in the final throes. Right-back/winger Bandar Al Ahbabi was then revealed to have suffered a physical problem in Zaccheroni’s post-match press conference.

It is a good job 20-year-old Al Jazira prospect Khalifa Al Hammadi exhibits composure beyond his years and 33-year-old Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club utility man Walid Abbas remains utterly dependable.

Wayward and homeward bound: It is a staggering statistic.

The Socceroos produced 22 attempts on Khalid Essa’s goal and only two of them were on target (9.1 per cent).

For all the UAE’s redoubtable defending and even Degenek’s moment of madness, this was the evening’s defining number.

The void remains up top that 50-goal record-scorer Tim Cahill once filled. Worryingly for Arnold, there are no genuine candidates to fill it in the near future.

A third goalless display from five matches tells its own story.

KEY MOMENTS

21st min CHANCE: Tireless midfielder Hassan races forward from a counter-attack and slips in Ismail Al Hammadi. The winger ties Degenek in knots, but his shot is disappointingly tame.

40th min CHANCE: Striker Apostolos Giannou bursts past centre-back Ismail Ahmed and produces a strong save from Khalid Essa.

45th+ 1 min CHANCE: An Ismail Matar free-kick from out wide is flicked on by substitute Khalifa Al Hammadi. Striker Ali Mabkhout rises highest close to goal, but can only head over to produce gasps from the partisan Hazza stands.

49th min CHANCE: Giannou looks to have earned a yard of space in the penalty box. His rasping effort is bravely blocked by the excellent Hassan.

63rd min OFFSIDE: Giannou latches onto substitute Mathew Leckie’s header and slots home. These celebrations, however, are cut short when Leckie is, narrowly, ruled offside.

69th min GOAL: Degenek will not want to watch this one again. He cries foul under pressure from substitute Mohamed Abdulrahman, whose watched on by injured superstar brother Omar. Then his rushed, no-look back-pass is intercepted by the grateful Mabkhout. He rounds Mathew Ryan and slots in to an open goal. Cue bedlam.

TACTICAL TALKING POINT

All change: Both head coaches were bold enough to change their approaches after unsatisfactory round-of-16 ties.

UAE supremo Zaccheroni made five alterations from the 3-2 extra-time victory against Kyrgyzstan, with only Khalifa Mubarak (injury) and Esmail (suspension) forced upon him, and moved to a 4-2-3-1 from a 4-3-3.

It was only a pair of changes for Arnold after the goalless draw with Uzbekistan, influential playmaker Tom Rogic being banned and Kruse, staggeringly, coming in for Mabil. But the Socceroos’ shape changed wildly from a 4-2-3-1, to a rare 4-2-2-2.

Australia struggled to effectively build-up play from deep because of the gaps between their lines, while an energy infused UAE delivered the best 90 minutes of Zaccheroni’s troubled 15-month tenure.

VERDICTS

UAE: A-

The Whites made their own luck against the superior Socceroos.

Mabkhout snaffled the game’s best chance and Ismail Ahmed was the best defender on the pitch. Onwards to the last four.

Australia: C

The statistics point towards a heavy Socceroos win. Reality, however, was somewhat different.

They critically erred in defence and attack. Arnold has much work to do during this “four-year cycle” he’s so quick to speak about.

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