The UAE Under-23s will take another step on the long road to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Monday when they play an enlightening friendly against Guus Hiddink’s China, with little more than a month left until preliminary qualifiers begin.
Maciej Skorza’s starlets must build on last year’s promising bronze medal at the Asian Games when they battle Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Maldives from March 22-26 for spots at January 2020’s AFC U-23 Championship. Finish in the top three in next year’s continental tournament, or simply make the semi-finals if hosts Japan progress that far, and a return to the Games will be secured for the first time since Omar Abdulrahman et al shone at London 2012.
China’s youngsters will provide a tough examination at Rashid Stadium (17:15 kick-off). The Junior Whites lost 2-1 to them in the Asian Games’ group stage, plus they are now led by legendary ex-Real Madrid, South Korea and Chelsea head coach Hiddink.
Skorza will lean on the likes of Al Jazira defender Khalifa Al Hammadi and Al Wahda goalkeeper Mohammed Al Shamsi. Both were selected in January for the seniors’ run to the last-four on home soil at the Asian Cup.
Elsewhere, dynamic centre midfielder Majed Suroor has grown into a key player for unbeaten Arabian Gulf League leaders Sharjah.
Round 15 of the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Diego (Al Dhafra)
Even though three different scorers notched in Dhafra’s famous 3-0 thrashing of champions Al Ain, a hat-trick – of sorts – was registered.
Brazilian midfielder Diego teed up all three goals, moving onto five assists in his debut campaign.
This type of influence is required by the reigning Ligue 2 Player of the Year, going ahead.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Khalfan Mubarak (Al Jazira)
Goal of the week contenders were in plentiful supply when the Pride of Abu Dhabi battered Fujairah.
From Abdalla Ramadan’s piledriver to Nacer Barazite’s unflinching spot-kick, Jazira’s strikes all oozed class.
But at the head of the field was UAE playmaker Mubarak’s 41st-minute chip.
The 23-year-old collected a deep ball and wheeled away in celebration the moment his boot made connection with his impudent no-look dink over the goalkeeper. What a player.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Krunoslav Jurcic (Bani Yas)
Special chemistry is at play when Croatian coaches come to the Arabian Gulf League.
A recent lineage that began with Zlatko Dalic and Zoran Mamic is being continued by Jurcic at the promoted Sky Blues.
The 2-1 victory at sorry Al Wasl made it five wins, one draw and one defeat in the World Cup 1998 squad member’s last seven games in charge. A contender for Al Ain’s vacant coaching post is emerging.
Boss are well below par
The sense of apathy that has enveloped the UAE’s most-decorated club was brought to life on Friday.
Al Ain’s 3-0 loss at lowly Dhafra, however, was months in the making.
Mamic has defected, Hussein El Shahat’s been sold, Caio is off to Benfica and Ruben Ribeiro is average. Such calls mean 2018/19 can only be considered as a write-off.
Caio Canedo struck late on from the penalty spot to give Al Wasl hope with a 2-2 first-leg draw against star-studded Al Ahli Jeddah in the Zayed Champions Cup’s quarter-finals.
Centre-back Abdulla Jasem broke his career duck with a header at Zabeel Stadium for the struggling hosts. A flurry of first-half opportunities went begging at the other end, prior to €10 million Romania winger Nicolai Stanciu’s divine long-distance leveller on 66 minutes and prolific Cape Verde striker Djaniny’s tap-in soon after.
Chile midfielder Paulo Diaz then recklessly went through the back of substitute Hassan Mohammed, allowing Brazilian forward Canedo to calmly level.
JEDDAH’S JUST DESSERTS
Ahli had been warned. Neighbours Al Ittihad and Egypt giants Al Ahly had fallen already to a Wasl side that has sunk to being shock relegation contenders in the Arabian Gulf League.
Saturday’s concession of an early Jassim header – a first career goal at the 37th time of asking – would have inflated hopes of another scalp.
Prolific Syria striker Omar Al Somah then wasted four glorious first-half chances. This profligacy appeared to be going unpunished when Stanciu opened his Ahli account in spectacular fashion and Djaniny tapped in a 15th goal for his new club.
Wasl then rallied and Canedo’s spot-kick gave them hope for February 25’s return at King Abdullah Sports City.
FOSSATI’S EARLY FUMBLES
The curious decision to dispense with Pablo Guede this month and draft in Uruguayan veteran Jorge Fossati by Ahli seemed rooted in a desire to tighten up.
On the evidence of the 66-year-old’s first two games in charge, this ruthless call is not going to plan.
It’s now two matches played, no clean sheets kept and three headed goals conceded, plus a needless penalty.
WILL SAUDIS STILL CIRCLE FABIO?
A lucrative move west to the Saudi Professional League looked certain last summer for – then – Wasl darling Fabio De Lima.
Will links to Al Hilal and Al Nassr, however, resurface this off-season?
Against Ahli, the 25-year-old was reserved. A curled shot in the 77th minute went agonisingly wide, summing up his frustrations.
He did little on Saturday to change minds about a forward on the wane.
View this post on Instagram
I would like to apologize to Al Wasl, players and all fans for the expulsion today. We've been provoked by one player since the last game, with offenses against our families and players. I think that i’m not deserved red card, but nothing justifies my attitude. Everyone knows my personality. I hope to return the affection I receive from all of you with goals, assists and good performances, as I have been trying to do since I arrived at Al Wasl in 2014. Thank you for understanding!