Ali Mabkhout keeping the legend of UAE’s Golden Generation alive

Ali Mabkhout keeping the legend of UAE’s Golden Generation alive
UAE's forward Ali Mabkhout looks on during the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup Group A football match between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. (File/AFP)
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Updated 07 March 2021

Ali Mabkhout keeping the legend of UAE’s Golden Generation alive

Ali Mabkhout keeping the legend of UAE’s Golden Generation alive
  • With 17 goals to his name, the striker is leading from the front as Al-Jazira hunt the Arabian Gulf League title

Only seven minutes into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final, the ball drops over the shoulder of Ali Mabkhout on the right edge of the penalty area.

In one movement the Emirati striker unleashes a sensational volley into the Japanese net and the UAE are in the lead. Mabkhout does not celebrate, out of respect for the passing of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud earlier that day.

The epic encounter at Stadium Sydney in Australia would go into extra time and penalties, from which the UAE would emerge victorious and progress into the semifinal against the host nation.

The match remains arguably the high point of the UAE’s second “Golden Generation” of players raised by Mahdi Ali, and Mabkhout would end up the tournament’s top scorer.

Collectively and individually, things would never hit those heights again for all involved that day.

Except perhaps for Mabkhout.

Mahdi Ali would eventually depart his job as UAE head coach after the national team’s fortunes plateaued. UAE golden boy Omar Abdulrahman’s mooted move to a European team never happened and injuries have massively disrupted his career in recent years. Ahmed Khalil would be crowned 2015’s Asian Footballer of the Year but inconsistencies continued to plague him since as they have throughout his career.

All the while, Mabkhout has kept on producing the goods.

This season he has been simply unstoppable as he has led Al-Jazira to a major assault on the Arabian Gulf League title. Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Shabab Al-Ahli leaves the Pride of Abu Dhabi top of the table, two points ahead of Baniyas with seven matches left.

In the AGL’s list of top scorers, Mabkhout sits alone, with 17 goals from 19 matches. In second place, with 16, is his UAE national team colleague Fabio De Lima, the Emirati-nationalized Brazilian. But you’d have to go down all the way to 21st on the list, with five strikes, to find the next UAE-born player, Al-Jazira team-mate Khalfan Mubarak.

It is testament to Mabkhout’s caliber that he continues to mix it up with the best of the AGL’s foreign imports and still come out on top.

Apart from being plentiful, Mabkhout’s goals have been decisive.

In perhaps the most important match of the seasons so far, Mabkhout’s double ensured a 3-0 win for Al-Jazira at defending champions Sharjah. From challengers, the Abu Dhabi club were were now clear leaders and favorites.

On Feb. 5, Mabkout scored a hat trick in the 5-1 away win against Al-Dhafra. In  Al-Jazira’s next match, the comprehensive 6-0 win at Ittihad Kalba, he remarkably repeated the feat with another treble. From Friday, Jan. 29, he scored in six straight matches, until the run was needed on Saturday.

Apart from his goals, Mabkhout’s leadership qualities have grown year on year, and his understanding with the gifted Mubarak is one of the most promising in Emirati football, both at domestic and international level.

An AGL title this season would rank among Mabkhout’s greatest achievements, paving the way for another assault on the AFC Champions League next year. He already has two league titles to his name, in the 2010-11 and 2016-17 seasons, and President’s Cup winners medals in 2011 and 2012.

At international level he, like his young teammates, caught the eye at the 2012 London Olympics, won the 2013 Gulf Cup, and came to the world’s attention with a stunning 2015 AFC Asian Cup. In the latter two, he finished as tournament top scorer with five goals.

In the aftermath of their heroics in Australia, interest in Mabkhout and Abdulrahman hit a peak, with the Al-Jazira striker linked with a move to Germany.

It never materialized, as it never did for Abdulrahman either. With Mabkhout turning 31 later this year, it unlikely it ever will, and for player and fans perhaps that is no bad thing.

But Mabkhout continues to excel at home, and should he steer Al-Jazira to what is looking like an increasingly likely AGL title this season, there would still be the little matter of attempting to steer the UAE to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It will be a tall order.

One thing is for certain, if the UAE are to stand any chance at all of qualifying for the second time ever, and first time since 1990, to football’s biggest stage, they will need their talisman firing on all cylinders. Just as he has been all season.

Al-Rayyan coach Laurent Blanc focused on Goa danger for his AFC Champions League debut

Al-Rayyan coach Laurent Blanc focused on Goa danger for his AFC Champions League debut
Updated 35 min 42 sec ago

Al-Rayyan coach Laurent Blanc focused on Goa danger for his AFC Champions League debut

Al-Rayyan coach Laurent Blanc focused on Goa danger for his AFC Champions League debut
  • Blanc, the former coach of the French national team and PSG, will be experiencing his first taste of AFC Champions League action against FC Goa
  • All matches in Group E, which also includes Iranian club Persepolis and UAE’s Al-Wahda, will be played in India

RIYADH: Al-Rayyan coach and World Cup winner Laurent Blanc believes newcomers FC Goa will not be easy opponents in the AFC Champions League group stages.

And the 55-year-old Frenchman refused to compare Asia’s top club competition to its European counterpart.

History will be made at the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, when hosts Goa become the first Indian side to play in the AFC Champions League group stage, while the Qatari club will be looking to make the knockout rounds of the tournament for the first time.

Al-Rayyan, who finished third in the 2020-21 Qatar Stars League, will be making their 12th appearance in the continental showpiece.

“My team has prepared well for this match against FC Goa, and they are ready. This will be my first time coming here and playing in this stadium. We will give our best and it’s good to be here,” Blanc told the AFC official website.

“I want my team to play their best in this competition. This season is going to be very tough considering the rest days between the matches. We all have our targets and ambition, but our focus is on Goa FC and they are not an easy team to beat.”

Because of travel difficulties related to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, India will host all matches in Group E, which alongside Goa and Al-Rayyan includes Iranian club Persepolis and Al-Wahda of the UAE.

Blanc, the former coach of the French national team and PSG, will be experiencing his first taste of AFC Champions League action, and told his club’s official website that he was pleased with venue where the matches would be taking place.

However, he refused to compare the UEFA Champions League with the AFC Champions League, insisting they were two very different tournaments, and that while the Asian championship was difficult in its own right, it would not be fair to to make comparisons.

Goa coach, Juan Ferrando, will be missing the services of striker Igor Angulo, who won the ISL Golden Boot in his first year in India after scoring 14 goals in 21 games, and it will be up to forwards Devendra Murgaonkar and Ishan Pandita to fill the void left by the 37-year-old Spaniard.

Ferrando, however, can still call on the likes of Ivan Gonzalez, captain Edu Bedia, and Jorge Ortiz, and will hope home advantage can be decisive.

Speaking to the AFC website, the 40-year-old Spanish manager said: “This match is the most important moment for the club and Indian football. We are working hard because we know about the opponents and their level of football.

“It will be an intense match against Al-Rayyan, and the physical conditions are as important as the psychology and mentality of the players. The most important thing is to maintain that level of concentration for every game.”

Bedia called on his teammates to remain focused throughout the game. “It’s a historical match for Indian football to compete in a tournament of this calibre. We have worked very hard in training, we have a lot of ambition, and we’re definitely excited. We will try our best to play our best game forward,” said the 32-year-old midfielder.

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole
Updated 13 April 2021

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole
  • Klopp has earned icon status on Merseyside for delivering a sixth European Cup and a first league title for 30 years to Liverpool

LIVERPOOL: In need of another famous Champions League fightback, Liverpool cannot rely on a wave of passion, color and noise from the stands at Anfield to inspire a comeback from 3-1 down against Real Madrid on Wednesday.

If the English champions are to reach the semifinals for the third time in four years, they will instead need their manager Jurgen Klopp to conjure the motivation and tactical masterplan to once again eliminate one of Spanish football’s giants.

Klopp has earned icon status on Merseyside for delivering a sixth European Cup and a first league title for 30 years to Liverpool.

But the charismatic German has been unable to halt the Reds’ fall from grace this season.

With seven games to play in the Premier League, it is already mathematically impossible for Liverpool to retain their title as they lie 22 points adrift of Manchester City in fifth.

Hopes the Champions League could prove the salvation of a disappointing season were also dashed as Real ran riot in the first 45 minutes in Madrid last week to open up a commanding first leg lead.

Liverpool’s deficit is not as steep as when Barcelona visited two years ago in the semifinals in what turned out to be arguably the greatest of all the memorable European nights at Anfield.

Depleted by injuries, Klopp’s men still rolled over Barca’s stellar cast of star names 4-0 on their way to winning the trophy. But Klopp hinted that the task may be even greater now in front of the sterile atmosphere of an empty stadium due to coronavirus restrictions.

“If you want to have some emotional memories, then you watch the Barcelona game back and 80 percent of this game was the atmosphere in the stadium, so yes, we have to do it without that,” said Klopp after the first leg.

Liverpool can claim to have suffered more than most from an entire season behind closed doors.

Prior to January, they were unbeaten in 68 home Premier League games. That club-record run was followed by a less treasured one as for the first time Liverpool then lost six consecutive games at Anfield.

A late winner to beat Aston Villa 2-1 on Saturday snapped that streak, but only served to reinforce that Liverpool are not the force of the past two seasons.

On top of empty stadiums, injuries have also played a major role. Virgil van Dijk, Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip will again be missing for the visit of Madrid, while Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota’s first season at the club has been disrupted by lengthy layoffs.

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut
Updated 13 April 2021

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut
  • Jordanian champions Al-Wehdat SC face a baptism of fire in their AFC Champions League debut against Al-Nassr in Riyadh
  • Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad expected to feature prominently for the Green Giants

For most of Al-Wehdat’s existence, they have had to play second fiddle to Al-Faisaly, who have tallied twice as many domestic titles as their fierce Amman rival.

But over the past eight years, the Green Giants have started to turn the tide in their direction, winning five of the last seven league titles.

And it is Al-Wehdat who will make history this week when they become the first Jordanian club to participate in the group stage of the prestigious Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

With the expansion of the tournament to 40 teams, up from 32, an extra four teams have been added in both the east and west zones as teams from Jordan, India and Tajikistan will appear for the first time.

Al-Wehdat will face a baptism by fire in their AFC Champions League debut as the Green Giants have been drawn alongside Qatari juggernaut Al-Sadd and last year’s semi-finalist, Al-Nassr, who they will face on Wednesday.

“This is a massive tournament,” Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad, who recently signed with Al-Wehdat, told Arab News from the club’s centralized hub in Riyadh. 

“All eyes are on this tournament in Asia and around the world and it is an opportunity to play good football and show what the champions of Jordan are about.”

Al-Wehdat have trained in Riyadh over the past few days and they know what they are up against.

“We are drawn into a tough group,” Saad said. “We have Al-Sadd and Al-Nassr, but we are the champions of Jordan so we should be able to compete. We should be able to play our style of football to get some results.

“Our expectations are to play the best we can, we want to win as many games as possible. And hopefully, we can get out of this tough group.”

Saad was born and raised in Michigan and rose to the ranks of Major League Soccer, the top-flight league in the US. He has also had professional stints in Thailand, Lebanon and South Korea but this will be his first taste of the AFC Champions League.

The prospect of playing in Asia’s showpiece tournament figured prominently in his decision to join the reigning Jordanian champions.

“When I joined Al-Wehdat, I knew they were in the Champions League and this definitely helped my decision,” the 28-year-old said.

“A big part of my decision was also coach Abdullah Abu Zema, who I had worked with before. I knew him from my time in Lebanon and I liked his approach to dealing with players.”

Al-Wehdat sealed the Jordanian Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Al-Jazeera last week, which was Saad’s first official match with the club. Then they traveled to Riyadh and the reception the club received upon arrival gave the players an extra boost, especially Saad.

“Arriving in the airport and seeing the Al-Wehdat fans was unreal,” he said.

“They followed us to the hotel. To realize we had that kind of support everywhere we go just shows this club is massive in the region and it is a great feeling.”

Saad got an early dose of the dedicated Al-Wehdat fanbase after he arrived in Amman to sign his contract.

“The amount of support I have received on social media has been incredible and it makes you really want to play and give your all for this club,” he added.

“I am still new so hopefully I can show them what I am about. When my restrictions ease up, we can experience the fans and culture that I think this club is very well known for.”

Whatever the next fortnight in Riyadh brings, Saad is just happy to be back playing football again after a spell in South Korea with the second-division Ansan Greeners that he would rather forget.

“I was not enjoying my football in Korea,” Saad said. “I had come off a season in Korea where we were playing a lot of defensive football. The coach really liked to play counter-attack and he liked his Korean players, so I was hungry to play.”

Saad is optimistic his reunion with Abu Zema will be a huge score for Al-Wehdat.

“I knew that Abu Zema has this personality to play attacking football, and that is what I missed most.”

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory
Updated 13 April 2021

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory
  • UAE’s Shabab Al-Ahli go into the group stages in Riyadh on a high after winning the 2021 League Cup on Friday

: Mahdi Ali will try, for one last time, to get the old band together.

There’s him, front man Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil, Majed Hassan, Hamadan Al-Kamali, Walid Abbas, Majed Naser, Abdelaziz Sanqour and Abdelaziz Haikal.

On Friday, a penalty shootout win over Al-Nasr saw the 2020-21 League Cup added to the recently won 2020 Super Cup in Shabab Al-Ahli’s trophy cabinet.

And when the Emirati coach leads the Dubai team into the group stages of the AFC Champions League this week, he will be doing so with a squad that’s packed with a group of players that he has known for close on to two decades now.

As coach of various UAE national age group teams from 2003 (U16s), and the senior team from 2012, Mahdi Ali was responsible for overseeing what has become known as the second Golden Generation of Emirati players.

A commendable, eye-catching performance at the 2012 London Olympics, winning the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations in Manama, and finishing third at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

For a while it seemed the team, or as the coach always called them, “the group”, could do no wrong. Until, suddenly they could do little right.

Mahdi Ali’s rein as UAE coach ended in 2017 as the UAE’s bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in France, a genuine prospect at the time, began to crumble.

Since then, he has only taken charge of Shabab Al-Ahli; first in 2017-18, and then again in 2020.

Back at the club he represented for 15 years in the 1980s and 90s, and which he briefly coached in the 2009-10 season, Mahdi Ali is now overseeing something of renaissance at Shabab Al-Ahli.

In addition to the silverware, a 13-match unbeaten run has seen the team rise to third in the Arabian Gulf League table, though still a significant seven points behind leaders Al-Jazira, and six behind Baniyas.

Still, it showed that the old maestro can still get a tune out of his players.

Except that it is mostly the new faces that have been delivering the high notes, with many of the UAE core reduced to back-up performers.

Leading the charge line for Shabab Al-Ahli in recent months have been the club’s foreign contingent of the Brazilians Igor Jesus and Carlos Eduardo, Federico Cartabia of Argentina and the Uzbeks Jaloliddin Masharipov and Odiljon Hamrobekov.

And while many of the Emirati players continue to play their part, two of country’s leading lights over the last decade, and arguably two of its finest ever, for now remain nowhere to be seen.

Ahmed Khalil, winner of the 2015 Asian Footballer of the Year award for his stellar performances in Australian and for helping then still Al-Ahli to the AFC Champions League final has barely figured in the first team over the last few years.

As occasionally brilliant as he is frustrating, inconsistency and injuries have blighted his career.

Above all, there is still the long shadow of Omar Abdulrahman, the golden boy whose fall from grace could be seen as metaphor for the fading of the golden generation.

The UAE’s most gifted player of all time, Abdulrahman was for long linked with a move to a major European league that never came.

In the summer of 2018, he joined Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia for what turned out to be an ill-fated, injury-disrupted spell.

A move to Abu Dhabi’s Al-Jazira a year later proved similarly unsuccessful, culminating in the previously unthinkable news that shocked Emirati and Middle East football supporters; Abdulrahman being released from his contract by the AGL leaders.

Perhaps it is fitting that a potential redemption arc has been offered at Shabab Al-Ahli under mentor Mahdi Ali, the man who oversaw Abdulrahman’s greatest hits.

But as the 29-year-old continues to recover from injury, Shabab Al-Ahli will go into the Champions League group stage held in Riyadh relying on the firepower of the foreign stars.

The first match against Istiklol, even before a ball has been kicked, has become a must-win match.

The team from Tajikistan will be seen as the group’s weakest link and while 2019 champions Al-Hilal take on AGMK of Uzbekistan, Shabab Al Ahli will be hoping to post three points on the board before the bigger challenges appear.

The second match will be against the hosts Al-Hilal, before a double-header against AGMK precedes the return match against Istiklol.

The last thing Mahdi Ali would want is to go into the final match against an on-form Hilal team needing a win to qualify to the knockout stages.

Still, the team is on a high after the League Cup triumph and perhaps the AFC Champions League fixtures have come at the perfect time for the UAE team - a glorious year remains a tantalizing possibility.

Just when the Emirati stars of the last decade take center-stage remains to be seen.

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld
Updated 13 April 2021

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld
  • Saudi Arabian Football Federation still looking into the alleged altercation between Abderrazak Hamdallah and Waleed Al-Ahmed in the King’s Cup semi-final

DUBAI: Al-Ittihad have settled the FIFA dispute with Esperance Club two weeks ago after the Jeddah club paid $200,000 it owed for last season’s signing of the Tunisian Anis Al-Badri, it has been revealed by Arabic-language newspaper Arriyadiyah.

The daily added that the Tunisian club had lodged its complaint as a result of Al-Ittihad’s failure to pay the second instalment of the sale of Al-Badri, which was due in July last year.

According to unnamed sources, FIFA’s dispute resolution chamber issued its ruling obliging Al-Ittihad to pay the amount together with the delay fine.

The news comes only days after Al-Ittihad dragged themselves back into the Saudi Pro League title race with a 2-0 win over reigning champions Al-Hilal

The club is now looking to similarly settle a case with the Argentine club Rosario Central for the transfer of Leonardo Gil in 2017

It is the latest of domestic and foreign disputes that the Al-Ittihad administration is looking to settle as soon as possible.

Meanwhile on Monday, the appeals committee of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) rejected Al-Nassr's appeal against the discipline and ethics committee's decision regarding its decision to suspend its Moroccan forward Abderrazak Hamdallah.

The committee indicated that while it had formally accepted the appeal, its subject was ultimately rejected, supporting the initial disciplinary decision against the player for his alleged altercation with Al-Faisaly defender Waleed Al-Ahmed in Al-Nassr’s King’s Cup semi-final defeat on April 4.

Last Wednesday, the disciplinary committee had announced that Hamdallah will be temporarily suspended for a period of 15 days, with an option to extend the ban to any matches in which he is illegible, until the completion of the study into what happened during the match.

It was the latest controversy to beset the club in a season turmoil on and off the pitch, however Hamdallah, the league’s top scorer for the last two seasons is free to take part in Al-Nassr’s AFC Champions League group matches starting this week.