Khalid Essa has vowed to rise to the challenge presented by “the best goalkeeper in the UAE” and wrestle with the recalled Majed Nasser to be No1 at the Asian Cup.
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A space has opened up between the sticks for the Whites after captain Ali Khaseif chose to undertake national service rather than head to Australia for this month’s competition. This situation sees Al Ain shot stopper and regular No2 Essa battling with Al Ahli’s Nasser to start Sunday’s Group C opener against Qatar.
Nasser gained 64 caps for his country prior to a number of serious disciplinary incidents derailing his international career in 2012.
The 30-year-old was expected to have been consigned to the past by coach Mahdi Ali, who frowns on any misdemeanours.
He has excelled in goal upon his return from long-term injury this season, but a successfully appealed six-month ban and Dh200,000 fine for allegedly spitting at referee Yacoub Al Hammadi shows his continuing propensity to attract trouble. Essa is a much steadier presence for the Boss, promising to give his all in training to push Ali to select him.
“Everybody knows that Majed Nasser is the best goalkeeper in the UAE and maybe even the Arabian Gulf,” the 25 year old said. “This is a challenge for me. I have Majed Nasser and Ali Khaseif as competition. We have a good challenge between us. I am the youngest out of those guys, as you know. I take experience from Majed and Ali.”
The late withdrawal of Al Jazira’s Khaseif shortly before the UAE departed for Australia saw Sharjah’s Mohamed Yousif selected in his place. The promising 23-year-old was third choice during November’s failed Gulf Cup defence and will carry out the same role Down Under.
Nasser’s reintroduction came as a shock, with Essa expected to be in pole position to oust Khaseif after problems with form and fitness. The Al Ain man insisted he was not threatened by Nasser’s call-up.
Essa said: “It is not hard with Nasser being back. It is a good challenge for us. The decision is for Mahdi Ali who is the best goalkeeper between the three of us. We will try to train well and Inshallah we get a good result.”
The Asian Cup comes in the middle of a packed campaign, Arabian Gulf League action again halted to accommodate another international tournament. Al Ain have steadily motored up the table after seeing their run to the AFC Champions League semi-finals provide a further distraction.
Despite the heated domestic competition, Essa insisted the Whites squad will have no problem concentrating fully on the matters at hand in January. He said: “The Asian Cup is an important event. It is difficult. We will forget about the Arabian Gulf League and focus on the competition. We will try to make good results and good games in Australia.”
UAE Football Association president Yousif Al Serkal has expressed his “sorrow” about Saturday’s farcically cancelled final Asian Cup warm-up match against Kuwait.
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Al Azraq withdrew from the behind-closed-doors friendly on Australia’s Gold Coast shortly before the 18:00 local time kick-off after reneging on a pre-agreed stipulation that the action would not be recorded.
The situation escalated rapidly, with newly-installed head coach Nabil Maaloul being threatened with arrest after an unsanctioned extension of a training session on the Cbus Super Stadium pitch could not be disrupted by sprinklers or match officials.
The incident was discussed at length during a UAE FA event yesterday at their Dubai headquarters where two dossiers of documents from the Asian Fooball Confederation, football associations and tour nament organisers were provided to the media as evidence to support the Whites’ case.
When asked to describe his reaction to Kuwait’s behaviour with six days to go until the UAE’s Group C opener against Gulf Cup champions Qatar, Al Serkal replied: “Sorrow. I am sorry that they missed a good preparatory match, and so did we.
“It is no joke to cancel such an important game. I believe it was even more important for them as they have a new coach and they should play as many matches as possible help him to put a hand on his team.
“It also affects us negatively, but not as much. I hope we can find a substitute match.
“We do not consider individual acts as big issues between the federations. Incidents come and go, but the relations between the UAE Football Association and Kuwait FA will last forever.”
The last-minute cancellation has left the UAE scrambling to arrange another friendly before the competition starts next week, while there could yet be legal or financial penalties incurred.
“This is the first incident which has happened to the UAE in such a way in the past years,” UAE FA acting general secretary Mohammed Hazzam Al Dhaheri said. “We will prioritise the technical issues, then we will look into the legal issues. Financial issues include the accommodation for the game.”
Meanwhile, Al Serkal insisted the delay in agreeing a new contract with UAE boss Mahdi Ali is not tied to uncertainties about his own future.
Al Serkal’s current term expires in April 2016. Reports had stated that a reluctance had emerged to extend Ali’s deal from July 2015 to 2019 as planned, because a future board may want another boss.
The administrator denied this was an issue, insisting all agreements contain mutual break clauses.
He said: “There is no big issue. The contract expires in July 2015, so we are negotiating the renewal.
“It gives us time, and gives Mahdi time. If we negotiate now and reach an agreement, then we go ahead and sign the contract starting July.
“If we don’t, then we have time to look for another coach.
“All our contracts give either party chance to terminate. If we sign now, and whoever comes next decides they don’t want that coach or Mahdi decides he doesn’t want to continue, then both sides have clauses to terminate. We have stopped the negotiations because of the Asian Cup and then we will continue.”
The UAE’s preparations for the Asian Cup began on a victorious note after Haboush Saleh struck a late winner in their opening friendly against Jordan yesterday.
The recalled Bani Yas winger lashed in the only goal from outside the area on 84 minutes to see off their Middle Eastern opponents.
Gulf Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout then shot into the side netting after rounding substitute goalkeeper Moataz Yassin as the Whites finished with a flourish on Australia’s Gold Coast.
The victory could have been even more comfortable against opponents who lost a World Cup 2014 Intercontinental Play-off against Uruguay last year, Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil seeing a first-half penalty saved by the excellent Amer Shafi.
There was still no sign of injured playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, with Majed Nasser edging Khalid Essa to start in goal.
The UAE play Kuwait on January 3 before their Group C campaign kicks off against Qatar on January 11 in Canberra.
“The team came out a range of benefits including the distinctive appearance of the two goalkeepers Majed Nasser and Khaled Issa,” UAE coach Mahdi Ali said. “We must now focus on the position of the first game against Qatar as a win is the key that will lead the Whites to the next round.”
Meanwhile, Ahli boss Cosmin Olaroiu’s loan stint with Saudi Arabia started with a worrying 4-1 friendly defeat to Bahrain.