UAE reached the final of the prestigious regional competition for the third time in a decade with a dramatic penalty shootout win over Iraq and they will be firm favorites for the match at Jaber Al Ahmad International Stadium as they are 28 places above the Reds in the FIFA rankings and have a greater pedigree. But Khalil is not counting any chickens.
“Of course, it will be a tough game in the final,” the striker said. “We play against Oman, who we played in the first match, but this is a final, this is different. It’s true that we won the first game, but they are so strong, they are fast, they play very well on the counter-attack. We have to concentrate. We have to continue like this, we have to work. It’s just one game.
“We hope every player takes this point: that it is a final, that it’s not the same as every game. We have to do all our best and come back to our country as the champions. Friday is the final stop in our route to the title, and we will give our best against Oman. Winning is the most important thing for us, and whenever we see our fans’ happiness, it gives us the energy to work harder and try to bring joy to the UAE people.”
Omar Abdulrahman, the Al-Ain playmaker, brings unbridled joy to the Emiratis with his wizardry and the stage is set for him to light up Friday’s final.
“I’m not the only star in this team — we are as a team, we all help each other,” Abdulrahman said. “Our target was to reach the final and we have done that. So it’s a new step for us. We have to concentrate. We know the Oman team; we played against them.”
UAE beat Oman in Group A on Dec. 22 yet Oman actually topped the group as UAE could only muster goalless draws with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In fact, the UAE have only mustered one goal in 390 minutes of football — and that was an Ali Mabkhout penalty, leading to criticism of the cautious style under new coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
“I understand people say the UAE team didn’t play well, but it’s a new tactic, a new style of playing with an Italian coach and we have to understand what he wants from us,” Abdulrahman said. “We are trying to put into practice what he tells us. In the next game we have to correct the mistakes we made in the semifinal and we have to be 100 percent concentrated. I’m optimistic we’re going to win this trophy and come back to the UAE happy.”
UAE are two months into life under Zaccheroni, who replaced Edgardo Bauza who, of course, left to join Saudi Arabia. Under Zaccheroni’s watch, UAE have only conceded one goal in seven matches and are on a six-match unbeaten run, losing only to Haiti in his first game.
“I have only been here for a couple of months and I am looking to improve,” he said. “Our strikers did very well, even though they were not fully ready. We need more time to work together and build a strong side. We are gradually improving and that’s what matters.”
Zaccheroni has won Serie A with AC Milan, the Asian Cup with Japan and now gets the chance this weekend to add the Gulf Cup to his coaching CV. He feels his side might be at a slight disadvantage to Oman as they kicked off later than their opponents, thus giving them less rest time, and also had to contest a physically-demanding extra time and then the mental challenge of penalties.
“Playing 120 minutes is a tough load on the players, so we need to recover after playing every two day,” he said. “Oman are an organized side who play a modern brand of football. They qualified top of the group, but we beat them in the first match.”