For the first time 24 nations will be competing in the Asian Cup, expanding from the 16-team format between 2004 and 2015. The Emiratis automatically qualified as host nation, while the remaining 23 were secured through qualifiers of which the first two serving as qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup in Russia.
The United Arab Emirates kick off their 2019 national team ambitions as host to one of the most coveted tournaments in the continent – the Asian Cup. While it certainly is not a first attempt for the Emiratis hosting the event (previously hosted in 1996), the Abyad’s will certainly fancy their chances to lifting the trophy this time around.
Buoyed by a strong performance at the FIFA Club World Cup, courtesy of Al-Ain, all members of the set-up within the camp are in high spirits going into the curtain lifter against Bahrain on Saturday.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s selection of the 23 men includes a decent balance of experience and fresh raw talent. The squad managed to secure three wins in eleven international friendlies this year, however notable ties were earned across their Latin American foes Honduras and Bolivia, respectively.
An obvious face missing from the line-up will be that of Omar Abdulrahman – the midfielder who was to carry the hopes of 9.4 million across the nation on his shoulders. In October, while playing on-loan for Saudi giants Al-Hilal against city foes Al-Shabab, Omar had sustained a serious injury while outstretching to receive pass which resulted in the playmaker tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
His teammate in Al-Ain – Ahmad Barman is another player who will be missing the tournament after suffering an injury in the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals against River Plate after putting in a shift throughout the entire tournament.
The squad will primarily depend on Khalid Eissa who displayed his heroics with his shot stopping abilities in the Club World Cup. That said, the energetic keeper will lead from the back directing his defenders and carefully placing them to individually mark players on set pieces – an aspect of game that could hurt them.
Additionally, reliance will be placed on one of the most experienced Emirati defenders and probably the tallest player in the squad to be a wall. Looking at the opponents within the group and given his physical attributes, Ahmed should not have a difficult time winning aerial duels. The 35-yr-old has been a mainstay in the back four for almost a decade now. Additionally, his ability to win aerial battles on both ends of the pitch is complimentary to that which UAE lacks. However, with age comes lesser agility, hence it wouldn’t be surprising to see an attacker to hone in on him.
While Zaccheroni would limit playing time to the most capped player in team – Ismael Matar, his inclusion in the squad exemplifies his performances this season at club level. The attacking midfielder has not showed any signs of slowing down with his ability to create and convert being consistent.
And finally Zaccheroni would rely on Ali Mabkhout to lead the attack and perhaps put in a similar performance as the Al-Jazira front man displayed in 2015 eventually lifting the golden boll award. Mabkhout, as he had been in previous seasons, has been scoring goals at will having netted 15 goals in 12 games. His ability to find the right spaces and find himself at the end of open play or set pieces is crucial for the team.
Zaccheroni will most likely stick to his comfort zone tactic of 4-5-1, given the lack of depth in terms of options available upfront.
The 23 squad members are as follows:
Ali Kasheif (Al-Jazira), Khalid Eissa (Al-Ain), Mohammed Al-Shamasi (Al-Wahda)
Mohammed Ahmed (Al-Ain), Khalifa Al-Hammadi (Al-Jazira), Waleed Abbas (Shabab Al-Ahli), Fares Juma (Al-Jazira), Bandar Al-Ahbabi (Al-Ain), Alhusain Saleh (Sharjah), Ismael Ahmad (Al-Ain)
Khameis Ismael (Al-Ain), Majed Hassan (Shabab Al-Ahli), Khalifa Mubarak (Al-Nasr), Ali Salmeen (Al-Wasl), Amer Abdulrahman (Al-Ain), Mohammed Abdulrahman (Al-Ain), Saif Rashid (Sharjah), Rayan Aslam (Al-Ain), Ismael Al-Hammadi (Shabab Al-Ahli), Khalfan Mubarak (Al-Jazira), Ismael Matar (Al-Wahda)
Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira), Ahmad Khalil (Shabab Al-Ahli)