Why the UAE can defend their Gulf Cup title

The UAE begin their Gulf Cup title defence on Friday against Oman. Ali Khaled examines how it can be successful.
UAE coach Mahdi Ali, centre, lifts the Gulf Cup trophy after his side's victory in the 2013 tournament. Fadi Al-Assad / Reuters / January 18, 2013
UAE coach Mahdi Ali, centre, lifts the Gulf Cup trophy after his side's victory in the 2013 tournament. Fadi Al-Assad / Reuters / January 18, 2013

The UAE begin their Gulf Cup title defence on Friday against Oman. Ali Khaled examines how it can be successful.

A settled squad

The UAE’s Gulf Cup triumph last year felt like an overnight success for the young team and new manager. It was nothing of the sort.

The majority of the victorious squad in Bahrain had blossomed at the 2012 Olympic Games, and had played together for years before that, too.

Every step of their development, from youth to full internationals, has been overseen by Mahdi Ali. The coach has fostered a team spirit among the members of the squad, or the “group”, as he calls them. “There are no reserves” has become a mantra.

He has stuck by those who have served him well at so many age-group levels. They have rewarded his faith with an Under 19 Asian Championship in 2008, a quarter-final run in the 2009 Fifa U20 World Cup, a silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games, a London 2012 Olympics appearance and the 2013 Gulf Cup.

Tactics

Mahdi Ali has given the UAE an identity. After years of short-term coaches with different approaches, the UAE Football Association settled on the meticulous, tactics-obsessed coach who has raised a generation of players on a certain style of play: short passes and possession football.

The players bought into his ideology. In front of Ali Khaseif, Muhaned Salem has been a solid, calming presence at the heart of defence. Walid Abbas has blossomed into a formidable attacking left-back. Amer Abdulrahman and Habib Al Fardan are the midfield pivots, with Omar Abdulrahman pulling the strings in his advanced playmaker role. Ali Mabkhout, Ahmed Khalil and Ismail Al Hammadi tirelessly work the channels, and Ismail Matar is on standby to stretch tiring defences.

Mahdi Ali’s methods brought success in Bahrain last year. Expect more of the same.

The winning habit

Since the 2013 Gulf Cup, the UAE’s run of results has been remarkable. An unbeaten 2013, comfortable qualification to the 2015 Asian Cup and several notable friendly victories. This is a team instilled with the winning habit.

A loss of form this year raised concerns that the side peaked too early. Mahdi Ali has dismissed that notion, never taking his eye off the prizes – this Gulf Cup and the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia next January.

He knows that this team get results when it matters and that his players know they are the team to beat in Riyadh.

If not UAE ... then Iraq

Whatever the circumstances the Iraqi national team always seem to draw inspiration from adversity.

Despite the country’s ongoing political troubles, the national team can be counted on to unite the Iraqi people, with Sunni, Shia and Kurd players often all represented in the squad.

More importantly, the team has a great mix of experience and youth, from the brilliant Nashat Akram to 18-year-old prodigy Humam Tariq, currently on loan from Al Ahli to Al Dhafra in the Arabian Gulf League.

Last year, in Bahrain, Tariq starred as his country took the UAE to extra time in the final, and recently was part of the team that won bronze at the Asian Games in Incheon.

Should Iraq qualify from a tough group that contains UAE, Kuwait and Oman, they will likely have a favourable semi-final. A repeat of last year’s final would not be a surprise; the UAE should beware.

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: November 12, 2014 04:00 AM

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