The UAE confirmed top spot in Group A at the Asian Cup as the unbeaten Whites drew 1-1 with Thailand in Al Ain.
Ali Mabkhout gave the home side the perfect start at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, nodding in his 46th international goal on his 66th appearance.
Thailand equalised just before half-time, Thitiphan Puangjan poking in at the second attempt. The second half was a very open affair although neither side could quite muster the quality required to forge a winner.
Here are three talking points.
MABKHOUT IS A MARVEL
The greatest Emirati striker ever? The iconic Adnan Al Talyani may well have something to say about that. But in an era where professionalism has engulfed UAE football, would the UAE’s legendary leading caps holder (161) and goalscorer (52) have thrived as he did in today’s game? Doubtful.
His exploits came in a glittering 14-year international career. The 46th goal of Mabkhout’s Whites pilgrimage has arrived in just 66 caps, of a senior career that only began seven years ago.
Fellow history-chaser Ahmed Khalil, 27, is actually a year younger and only two goals shy of Al Talyani’s haul, earned from 100 caps, although he has endured long stints on the sidelines in recent years.
While you feel Khalil’s career could end sooner rather than later, there is no doubt Mabkhout, 28, is a pure thoroughbred, who will go on to smash Al Talyani’s tally.
His international goalscoring rate of 0.69 goals per game is incredible; he gave Real Madrid nightmares in December 2017’s Club World Cup semi-final encounter for club side Al Jazira.
He took the 2015 Asian Cup by storm – rocketing in five times to finish as the tournament’s golden boot winner. He now has two in three games here. Can he claim the title again? The UAE are not firing at the same level as they were four years ago, but Mabkhout is even more lethal.
NOT QUITE DEADLY, BUT STILL DANGEROUS
The UAE have come a long way from January 5 and requiring Khalil to rescue a point against Bahrain.
OK, they were far from flawless against an energetic India outfit on matchday two, but they were clinical and got the job done – something you do not immediately associate with Whites performances.
They again encountered problems against a talented Thailand side that grew into the game. The ageing limbs of 30-somethings Ismail Ahmed and Ismail Al Hammadi would have been creaking a little louder as the sprightly War Elephants stamped their mark on the game, Ahmed in particular looked every one of his 33 years.
Deploying a five-man defence seemed overly cautious from Alberto Zaccheroni, although his side did take the lead and looked the better side in the first 45 minutes. He rectified that at half-time but it didn’t deter the Thai charge.
On the balance of three games played so far, they look a level below the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia. But they are into the knockouts and have the potential and individual talent to ruffle the feathers of the favourites.
KEEPING UP WITH KHALID
Mabkhout will rightly grab the headlines for his goalscoring exploits but it is the man at the other end of the pitch, Khalid Essa, who the UAE must hold in equally high regard after stepping up to the plate at the Asian Cup.
The goalkeeping position has for a longer than an ideal amount of time been like handling a hot potato at international level. UAE coaches seem unable to decide on an established No1.
Majed Nasser was the original incumbent but aside from his brilliant shot-stopping, he comes with an explosive attitude which he can never keep in check.
Ali Khaseif has been one of the more regular challengers to Essa, and like Nasser his ability to produce top stops is spectacular, but he tends to not do the mundane things assuredly, like securing crosses.
Ahmed Mahmoud and Fahad Al Dhanhani are even more error-prone, while Mohammed Al Shamsi and Sultan Al Manthari remain works in progress. Essa is the one constant.
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