The UAE's latest camp concluded on Monday with the 3-1 defeat to Bahrain in Dubai, meaning new manager Jorge Luis Pinto has overseen two losses in three official friendlies since his appointment. With the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign resuming in March, and the national team not scheduled to reconvene until January, we look at some of the key issues facing the Colombian.
Buttressing the backline
In those three friendlies – Uzbekistan last month, Tajikistan and Bahrain this – the UAE have conceded seven goals, including the need to rebound from 2-0 down to Tajikistan on Thursday. At times, they have been way too open, with their most recent two opponents in particular finding significant success down the UAE’s left.
Saying that, in the centre, Khalifa Al Hammadi has been impressive, the young Al Jazira defender excelling while paired alongside the experienced Yousef Jaber.
Jaber, those, has enjoyed something of a renaissance as full-back for club side Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, and the calls for Sharjah captain Shaheen Abdulrahman to get the nod in the middle are warranted. His team top the Arabian Gulf League.
Meanwhile, Pinto’s decision to reinstate the inconsistent Abdulaziz Haikal at right-back has been heavily criticised. At present, Mahmoud Khamis and Mohammed Fawzi represent the most obvious candidates at full-back, but they have been left too exposed this past week and therefore struggled defensively. Even if the personnel doesn’t need a major rethink, the system requires tinkering.
UAE made to fight for win against Tajikistan
Finding right balance in central midfield
Since some time ago, Ali Salmeen has emerged as a regular starter in the centre of the park – fitness permitting. The Al Wasl midfielder is tenacious with an excellent sense of timing, and provides a solid base for the UAE to forge forward.
Pinto’s predecessor, Bert van Marwijk, considered Salmeen essential to his side. For the past two matches, Abdullah Ramadan, the highly rated Al Jazira youngster, has been favoured alongside Salmeen in a midfield two. Only 22, Ramadan is a cultured passer of the ball, able to create and cover ground, too.
Still, there is an argument for Pinto to plump for a similar player to Salmeen, fortifying the midfield and allowing the players ahead more freedom.
Majed Hassan remains the primary choice if he can stay off the treatment table, while Tariq Ahmed has enjoyed a fine start to the season with Al Nasr. Also, Majed Surour grows ever more important at Sharjah. Patently, the options are there. Finding the right blend will be crucial going forward.
Reintegrating principal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman
It's a conundrum that’s not been confined to Pinto. Omar Abdulrahman remains the UAE’s most naturally talented player, and at 29 should be entering his prime. However, once more injury has kept him out of the national team.
Thankfully, his latest issue, sustained in September, is not said to be long-standing, but when and where the Jazira playmaker will fit into Pinto’s plans is still unknown.
Clearly, a footballer of Abdulrahman’s ability demands his place in the team, with the No 10 spot appearing his most suitable position. For that, Abdulrahman must get back up to speed as soon as possible. There were signs last season that he was recapturing form of old, the 2016 Asian player of the year finally fully recovered from a third major knee operation, in late 2018.
Then the pandemic struck. Thus, Abdulrahman has now gone a full year without representing his country. The feeling, however, is that he should thrive once back, especially with the three naturalised additions to the squad – Fabio De Lima, Caio Canedo and Sebastian Tagliabue – providing the UAE a substantial uplift in their attacking thrust.
Making most of vastly improved forward options
How Pinto puts together his frontline will be integral to the UAE’s chances of reaching the third round of qualification. Against Tajikistan and Bahrain, he deployed Caio on the left, De Lima in the middle and Bandar Al Ahbabi on the right, with Ali Mabkhout leading the line.
The country’s all-time top scorer, Mabkhout’s place is assured. For too long, the UAE have been overly reliant on him, but now boast serious options up top. Together with the naturalised trio, and Abdulrahman, Ali Saleh and Zayed Al Ameri have real promise, while Khalfan Mubarak is a talented playmaker.
Ahmed Khalil, 2015 Asian player of the year and typically one of the team’s headline acts, is returning from another spell on the sidelines. There’s veteran Ismail Matar, whose form and stature in UAE football add weight to calls for his inclusion.
Discovering the best combination will cause Pinto a headache – Caio has stated he doesn’t enjoy playing on the left, while Al Ahbabi’s pinpoint crossing makes him a lock on the other flank – but what a problem to have. A shift from, or a variation of, Pinto's 4-2-3-1 may be required.