Ahmed Khalil is an afterthought at Al Ahli, the forward Cosmin Olaroiu turns to when all else fails. But for the UAE, he remains as vital as ever.
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Mahdi Ali’s trust in the ungainly 23-year-old has often raised eyebrows. Yet, the Whites boss rarely goes without reward.
Six starts for the UAE in recent months have brought four goals. This is one more than in 13 forgettable Arabian Gulf League appearances this term, eight of those coming from the bench.
Ali Mabkhout and, above everyone else, Omar Abdulrahman provide the gloss and steal the headlines. In Khalil, Ali has an unheralded trooper he knows he can rely on.
His national coach knows him better than most, the pair going on a journey together from youth-team level to starring on a continental stage.
This was the story once again in Sunday’s 4-1 thrashing of Qatar. A rival hotly-tipped after wrenching away the UAE’s Gulf Cup crown in November were put to the sword, though not without any panic.
Khalfan Ibrahim’s characteristic stroke of genius to lob the recalled goalkeeper Majed Nasser saw the UAE facing an early deficit despite a bright start. A spark was needed.
Khalil duly obliged either side of the interval, his brace matched by blossoming Jazira front-man Mabkhout to secure a memorable 4-1 triumph that perfectly sets up quarter-final qualification.
Khalil’s efforts were not things of beauty, bundling in the leveller before benefitting from Qasem Burhan’s bizarre goalkeeping on a free-kick for his second.
We shouldn’t, by now, be surprised by Khalil’s contribution. He regularly rises above mixed domestic form to excel in the UAE jersey.
His three goals were essential to the 2013 Gulf Cup success, providing the difference in the narrow semi-final triumph against Kuwait and becoming the tournament’s joint leading scorer with three.
A series of wretched displays in the 2014 edition were redeemed as he scored two high-quality goals in the sickening 3-2 semi-final defeat to hosts Saudi Arabia.
The formula seems clear, play him enough and he will deliver. His combination of size and skill is rare, the lack of top-draw consistency the only source of frustration.
No such problems are apparent in Omar’s game. The Middle East’s finest player put on a masterclass against the Maroons, his supreme talent shining like a beacon. The Al Ain star was the source of wave after wave of attacks. Remarkable for a player sidelined since late November with an ankle knock.
A series of flicks and turns brought gasps from the crowd. His hand was present in the first and last goals, showing laudable drive to push forward on the counter-attack to set up Mabkhout’s tap-in on 89 minutes with an audacious nutmeg that let everyone in attendance know they were in the presence of greatness.
Scarily, for the opposition, he can only get better once his match fitness improves.
Hamdan Al Kamali also provided a positive influence. His aggression was missed while injured during November’s Gulf Cup, his confidence bringing the ball out from centre-back a plus when properly focused.
Bahrain should provide cannon fodder on Thursday. Victory will all but guarantee progression to the last eight.
A marker has been laid down. It would be a shame to waste it.
Defending champions Japan trounced debutants Palestine 4-0 in a Group D Asian Cup match in Newcastle, Australia on Monday.
Defending champions Japan thrashed Palestine 4-0 in their Asian Cup opener on Monday, giving them the perfect start in their quest for a fifth title.
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The Blue Samurai, who won the tournament for a record fourth time in 2011, needed only eight minutes to take the lead against a Palestine team making their first appearance in Asia’s showcase competition.
Yasuhito Endo, making his 149th appearance for Japan, rifled a shot into the bottom corner, goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh going down in installments to gift the J-League player of the year his 15th international goal.
Shinji Okazaki, who has been in a rich vein of form for German club Mainz, scored with a poacher’s strike in the 25th minute, reacting with razor-sharp reflexes to head in a volley from Shinji Kagawa which looked to be fizzing wide.
Keisuke Honda, Japan’s bleachblond cult hero, then stroked home a penalty just before half-time before defender Maya Yoshida nodded in a fourth as the floodgates threatened to burst open.
Palestine, whose preparations for tournaments are invariably disrupted by political turmoil in their war-torn homeland, were barely given a sniff by a well-drilled Japan backline marshalled by Southampton centre-back Yoshida.
A brilliant individual goal from Iraq midfielder Yaser Kasim was the difference as 2007 champions Iraq opened their campaign with a 1-0 win over Jordan in Brisbane.
Kasim broke the stalemate in the 77th minute when he collected the ball just outside the box and weaved his way through two defenders with a mazey run.
He found just enough space to squeeze out a shot, which took a wicked deflection off defender Tareq Khattab’s foot and gave keeper Amer Shafi no chance.
The Jordanian’s best chance fell to Oday Al Saify, but his shot was deflected wide.