Mahdi Ali's boys ready to step into men's shoes

As the UAE national football team prepares for the Gulf Cup, there is hope age-group success can be replicated, writes Amith Passela.

All eyes will be on whether Omar Abdulrahman, centre, and his UAE teammates can impress at the senior level like they did as juniors. Courtesy UAE FA
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The stage is set for Mahdi Ali to launch his first title campaign as the UAE's senior national team coach.

"Suddenly, the entire nation has woken up to the fact there is new hope under Mahdi Ali," said Rashid Al Zaabi, the head of the national team delegation.

"A majority of the players are from the successful age-group team and in my thinking I don't see why they can't be successful at any level."

The UAE have done little wrong under the guidance of the Emirati coach. Their 2-0 and 3-1 victories over Yemen in Doha extended his record to five wins (Kuwait 3-0, Bahrain 6-3 and Estonia 2-1), a draw (Uzbekistan 2-2) and a defeat to the Asian heavyweights Japan (1-0), away, in his first game in charge.

"With that kind of record, the hopes are really high for the UAE to be a leading contender in the Gulf Cup," Al Zaabi said.

"Playing two games against the same opponent provided the coach with the opportunity to experiment with different combinations and also to give all the players a chance to get on to the pitch.

"The team did very well to win the two games which are very encouraging results ahead of a major championship."

Mahdi Ali was appointed the senior team coach on a three-year deal in August. He is the first Emirati given the responsibility, on a non-interim basis, to lead the senior side.

He is the most successful Emirati coach in age-group competitions, having led the Under 19 side to an Asian Cup championship in 2008, the U23 side to an unprecedented silver medal in the 2010 Asian Games and to qualification to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

He also took the U20 side to the last eight in the age-group World Cup in 2009. Many of the players he coached through the ranks are now in the senior side.

Al Zaabi thinks his countryman has all the makings of a coach who would lead the senior team to the same success he enjoyed with the age-group teams.

"It is hard to predict who will be champions at the end but we certainly are one" who could win, he said.

"The good results over Yemen in the two friendlies have provided the confidence, belief and raised the morale of the players. We couldn't have wished for a better preparation than what the team has already achieved.

"The results do matter even if they were friendlies. We played against some strong opponents on the coach's insistence.

"We can only wish now we can carry that momentum forward, and I really think they will. There has never been such optimism since we won the Gulf Cup in 2007."

The UAE face Qatar in their opening Group A game on Saturday. They play Bahrain, the hosts, three days later and meet Oman on January 11.

The UAE squad will leave for Bahrain on Thursday.

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