The UAE tripled their previous tournament tally by scoring three in their first game of the 24th Gulf Cup, easing to a 3-0 win against Yemen in Doha.
From scoring just once in that bizarre run to the final in 2017/18, when they lost on penalties to Oman, the Whites look transformed under Bert van Marwijk, whose revolution continues.
Ali Mabkhout was the standout performer with a sixth international hat-trick, moving on to 58 goals for his country and impressively past Romario, Samuel Eto’o and level with Edin Dzeko in the process.
And his growing international tally is where we start our talking points.
A GULF IN CLASS
The last Gulf Cup was remembered for Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman’s heavy-handed punishments for missing curfew the night before the final – leading to widespread consequences not only internationally but, bizarrely, domestically too.
But any fleeting remains of that controversy were banished brilliantly at Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Stadium as the lethal Al Jazira marksman struck a sixth international hat-trick.
He found space to give Salem Saeed no chance with an emphatic header before clinically smashing in number two after the rebound from Khalfan Mubarak’s blocked effort fell kindly. His third was the best, sitting down two defenders before an unnerving finish.
This year all talk had surrounded Mabkhout’s pursuit of Adnan Al Talyani’s long-standing UAE record of 52 international goals. Now that the 22-year-old mark has been surpassed, just how high globally can the marvellous Mabkhout go?
His 56th, 57th and 58th UAE goals moved him to joint 31st on FIFA’s highest-ranked goalscorers ever – nudging him past some big names in Brazil’s Romario (55) and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o (56) and level with Bosnia’s Edin Dzeko.
David Villa and Luis Suarez (59) are the next targets with perhaps even Neymar and Robert Lewandowski (61) well within range by the end of the tournament, depending on how far the Whites progress.
Mabkhout’s goals to game ratio is even more impressive – his 81 caps giving him a 0.72 average; the best of any active player and 10th overall.
BERT FINDING THE RIGHT BLEND
Yousef Jaber wore the captain’s armband with aplomb on his return to the international fold. The 34-year-old Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club stalwart ended a barren period in the wilderness, having not won a cap in seven years.
It is his inclusion that perhaps sums up Van Marwijk’s delicate yet firm touch on this UAE squad so far.
He is belatedly blending a talented new wave of Emirati youngsters with a solid wall of experience and has not been afraid to make bold calls – two things that have long been required.
For an inordinate amount of time the UAE has resembled something akin to Al Ain’s reserves – certainly in defence where the central partnership was so often Mohanad Salem and Ismail Ahmed, with Mohammed Ahmed at right-back when fit and Khalid Essa between the sticks.
Jaber has played his way back into the fold with stunning form for his club and while he is the same age as Walid Abbas he is not showing his age anywhere near as much.
At the other end of the age spectrum Van Marwijk is allowing a slew of young talents to shine. Mubarak was in danger of spending his international career in the confines of the UAE dugout, his stellar Al Jazira form somehow being ignored by Edgardo Bauza and Alberto Zaccheroni.
The 24-year-old won the best young player at the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League awards as Jazira lifted their first title in six years. He then won best senior Emirati player last season, yet it is only under Van Marwijk that he has become main string-puller.
BANDAR IS A BOSS
From middling right winger meandering around a mediocre Bani Yas team to pivotal UAE player. It’s been quite some turnaround for Bandar Al Ahbabi.
The 29-year-old has become a pivotal piece of the jigsaw for both club and country in the last season – shining at a time when both teams he represents have endured dark periods.
The 2018/19 AGL campaign was one of the worst periods in Al Ain’s history as they slipped to a dour fourth-placed finish in the league. A 4-0 defeat at home to Ajman in April was the Boss’ worst result at home in the professional era – which began in the 2008/09 season.
Al Ahbabi has hardly found any respite with the Whites who have played some turgid football during the tumultuous and befuddling reigns of Bauza and Zaccheroni.
Their journey to the semi-finals of the Asian Cup on home soil earlier this year was not memorable and ended with a 4-0 defeat by Qatar.
They reached the final of the 23rd Gulf Cup in January 2018 – yet scored just one goal in five games and were humbled by Oman in the final.
During this darkness, however, Al Ahbabi has been a beacon, transforming himself from wasteful right-winger to all-purpose right-sided demon – upping his contribution in both attack and defence.
During this period he has played right-back, right wingback and right forward, and has looked so comfortable it’s a struggle to know which is his best position. From banality at Bani Yas, he is now belatedly fulfilling his potential.