Five areas Alberto Zaccheroni must address to get the UAE on track for 2019 Asian Cup

Italian has 15 months to get the national team ready for the 2019 Asian Cup and has plenty to get on with ahead of the tournament.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - October 17th, 2017: Alberto Zaccheroni is confirmed as the new UAE football manager. Tuesday, October 17th, 2017 at UAE Football Association headquarters, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Alberto Zaccheroni was this week appointed as UAE national team manager through to the 2019 Asian Cup, which takes place in the Emirates in 15 months’ time. Here, we look at what lies in the Italian’s inbox as he begins his new role.

Restore belief/earn trust

Courtesy UAE FA
Courtesy UAE FA

The UAE’s failure to make next summer’s World Cup, a tournament at which they were expected to reach at their peak, means confidence within the team and faith among supporters is low. Zaccheroni should use that disappointment to fuel the country’s Asian Cup bid, drawing a line under the recent past and moving collectively towards the continental tournament.

For that, the players must buy into his philosophy, but do so immediately. In the majority, the side have gone from almost a decade with Mahdi Ali to five months with Edgardo Bauza and now to Zaccheroni. He needs fresh ideas and to convince the team that this is more than simply another stop-gap appointment.


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Find a formation that suits

Shuji Kajiyama / AP Photo
Shuji Kajiyama / AP Photo

During his four years with Japan, Zaccheroni preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation that made the most of the litany of talented midfielders at his disposal. Once more, that appears the strongest area of the current UAE squad. Throughout his time with the national team, Mahdi Ali favoured 4-4-2 , a system that became too predictable and too easy to overcome.

Privately at least, the players voiced their concerns. Bauza moved immediately to remedy that, and instantly the UAE looked more solid. A 4-2-3-1 is used almost universally in the Arabian Gulf League (AGL), meaning it should not take long to implement. It offers protection, too, to the defence, and allows Zaccheroni to maximise his attack.

Decide on the ‘Big Three’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 06: Ahmed Khalil (L) of UAE celebrates his goal with Omar Abdulrahman during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between UAE and Thailand at Mohamed Bin Zayed Stadium on October 6, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
Omar Abdulrahman, centre, is the UAE's chief creative fulcrum and his service to Ahmed Khalil, left, and Ali Mabkhout, right, will be missed at the Asian Cup. Getty Images

In Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout, the UAE have three of Asian football’s most recognisable names. Abdulrahman is the standout, obviously, and Zaccheroni will no doubt seek to build the team around the reigning Asian player of the year.

Mabkhout, meanwhile, remains the lead candidate to head the team’s attack, although the situation is complicated by Khalil. The Jazira forward, currently injured, has struggled for consistency recently with the national team. Whether he still merits a place in the starting XI, and where he best fits in that, needs addressing. Against Saudi Arabia in August, Khalil exhibited his prowess, but he must offer that more reliably.

Freshen up the squad

Al Jazira's Khalfan Mubarak, left. Courtesy Al Jazira FC
Al Jazira's Khalfan Mubarak, left. Courtesy Al Jazira FC

For too long, the UAE team picked itself. Players seemed guaranteed of their place irrespective of form or, even sometimes, fitness. The respective full-back slots was a case in point. Bauza began to change that, although he was limited by injury and the timing of his tenure.

With the AGL in full swing, Zaccheroni has the opportunity to inject fresh blood into the squad. Al Jazira’s Khalfan Mubarak is an obvious choice, and could be accompanied by a selection of his young clubmates, while Al Wahda and Al Wasl have started the season well. Reinforcements in defence are most certainly required.

Organise top-grade friendlies

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifications - Africa - Egypt vs Congo - Borg El Arab Stadium, Alexandria, Egypt - October 8, 2017   Egypt’s Mohamed Salah in action with Congo's Tobias Badila   REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Egypt are being lined up as a friendly opponent. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

With serious question marks surrounding the Gulf Cup in December, or at least the UAE’s participation in it, Zaccheroni will have few opportunities to see his side in action before the Asian Cup. Both the manager and the Football Association have promised friendlies against high-level opponents, in a bid to truly test the players ahead of the 2019 event.

That will most likely begin with World Cup qualifiers Egypt next month, perhaps with Uzbekistan during that international break, too. It will represent a difficult debut, but Zaccheroni needs to quickly gauge the talent and the composition of his squad. It places even more importance on those periods when the national team gather.