THE CITY OF MANAMA IS ALL DECKED UP TO THRILL TENS OF THOUSANDS OF SOCCER LOVERS AT HOME AND ABROAD. THE UAE TAKE ON IRAQ ON A TURF THAT HAS SEEN THEM WIN ALL THEIR MATCHES SO FAR. THIS EVENING THEY ARE DETERMINED TO PREVAIL OVER IRAQ AND BRING HOME THE GULF CUP WHICH THEY LAST WON IN 2007. THE GULF TODAY SPORT TEAM BRING YOU A BUILD-UP TO THE EVENT.
SHARJAH: UAE will clash with Iraq in the final of the 21st Gulf Cup final at the National Stadium in Manama, Bahrain today (Friday) at 6.45pm. Hosts Bahrain play Kuwait for the third place at 4.30pm.
While the Iraqis will try to lay their hands on the trophy for a fourth time, the Whites will try to repeat their 2007 home victory.
UAE, under the able guidance of Emirati coach Mahdi Ali, beat Qatar 3-1 in the opener, defeated Oman 2-0 and prevailed over Bahrain 2-1 in the final Group A league match before dethroning Kuwait 1-0 in the semi-final.
One thing significant about both the Friday finalists is that both the sides have a local coach. UAE’s Mahdi was elevated to head the senior team after his success with the Olympic team who made it to the London Olympics while the Iraqis have Haseem Sakher, who took over after Brazil’s Zico departed.
While the teams impressed in their Group matches, remaining unbeaten, both faced tough opponents in the semi-finals. UAE dethroned holders Kuwait with a last-gasp goal from former Asian player Khalil while the Iraqis beat hosts Bahrain via the penalty shootout after playing a 1-1 draw in regulation time.
The tournament also saw Khalil ending a goal-draught and emerging as the top scorer (three goals). It is widely believed that UAE have now overcome the biggest obstacle by dethroning record 10-time champions Kuwait in the semis. In this match the scoreline should have been higher had Khalil and Khamis Ismail’s shot not hit the crossbar.
Iraq also began impressively with a 2-0 opening victory against 2004 winners Saudi Arabia then got the better of holders Kuwait and beat 2009 winners Oman to top Group B.
In the 14 matches played before the final, 27 goals have been scored with the UAE topping the list with eight goals.
Both the teams have impressed with their performance so far with the UAE putting on better display. Omar Abdul Rehman and Ali Ahmed Mahbout, Ismail Khamis and Ahmed Khalil have put up some brilliant individual performances.
With plane loads of fans flying to Manama, the Whites will surely enjoy more fan support than the Iraqis. Although the fans’ support plays a big role it is the performance on the field which will count in the end.
WE ARE READY: ALI
The UAE coach Mahdi Ali said the Emiratis will be ready for the massive challenge ahead of them.
“Iraq are a very tough opponent, but our team has improved to a higher level in each match we play,” Ali said in his pre-match press conference. “We are ready. We have no injuries and our players are looking forward to fighting for the Cup.”
Ali stressed, however, that his team is not taking anything for granted, even if they have been one of the better sides in the competition. “We have played well in our four matches so far, but whatever happened in the past is in the past. We must now look to the future, and winning this next game is our goal,” Ali explained.
Meanwhile, Ali expressed his delight with the great support the UAE national team has received from their fans, the media and from all other sectors. “I am very proud of our fans, especially,” Ali said.
“I thank them for coming out to support us in the semi-finals. The fans make the game; without them there is no good match.”
Iraq coach Hakeem Shaker called on his players to take advantage of all of their chances when they face the UAE in the final.
“We must use all our chances tomorrow to try and score and win,” Shaker said.
The Iraqi national added that he feels less pressure than what was there in the final four, when they narrowly defeated hosts Bahrain in a tense penalty shootout to punch their ticket to the title game.
“The pressure is less in the final compared to the semis,” Shaker explained.
The last time UAE won the event in 2007 under Bruno Metsu, it was Ismail Mattar who made the difference in the final against Oman in Abu Dhabi. Mattar is still in the squad and was seen crying tears of joy after their victory over holders Kuwait in the semi-final as he was carried on the shoulders by his team-mates.
It may be recalled that in 2007 also UAE’s entry into the final was also via a single goal against Saudi Arabia before ace footballer Ismail Mattar netted the winning goal in the final against Oman, which ultimately earned him (five goals) the golden boot award.
Will Khalil will be able to get the same award this time in Bahrain? The question is being asked by many a football fan here. The Al Ahli striker was named the Asia’s Youth Player of the Year in 2008 after leading the UAE to the Asian Under-19 championship title. But the team should not be carried away with the success so far as the ultimate goal is the Cup.
Since the former Olympic team manager Ali, took over in August, he has been shaping up a team for the future that can qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, and then the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Though he did not guarantee an outright success in the Gulf Cup before proceeding to Bahrain he promised his lads will return with a good show.
In a short span of time, UAE have been transformed into an attacking side with a well backed defence system spearheaded by goal keeper Ali Khasif who has risen to the occasion and come up with brilliant saves.
Taking into consideration of the current form of the team, there is no reason why the boys in white cannot repeat the same success of 2007 since playing a match in Bahrain is like playing a home match, gauging by the presence of the large contingent of fans present during the semi-final.
Along with UAE, Iraq are also unbeaten in the competition but UAE’s task won’t be easier as they are facing a team with the best defence having conceded only one goal.
But if UAE can produce the same attacking pattern shown so far in the tournament they can make history by winning the Cup again that too under the leadership of an Emirati manager.
Iraq are the 2007 Asian Cup champions and the war-ravaged nation surprised everybody when they inflicted a 1-0 defeat on Saudi Arabia in the final. They (92) are the highest ranked team in the Gulf region. They also have an outstanding goalkeeper in Noor Sabri. Iraq have also accounted for three of the Gulf Cup titles, the last time being in 1988 in Saudi Arabia.
The tournament saw Saudi Arabia making an early exit for the third successive tournaments and Yemen returning home without a point.
(With inputs from Our Abu Dhabi Bureau)