Abu Dhabi: Ever since their maiden FIFA World Cup appearance at Italy 1990, United Arab Emirates have been striving for a return to the game’s premier competition.
However, it was not until the Qualifiers for Russia 2018 that they were strongly fancied to achieve that goal, thanks to their solid performance between 2013 to 2017 and a new generation of players that reflected the improved quality of UAE football.
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Among this group, one player in particular stood out: Ahmed Khalil.
The striker, who has been representing his country since his teens, has played a major part in what has been UAE’s most successful period.
In 2008, he led the national team to glory at the AFC U-19 Championship, where he was top scorer and best player, propelling them to FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
Khalil carried his fine early promise into the next decade, forming a lethal attacking trident with Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman.
After finishing runners-up in the 2010 Asian Games, winning the 2013 Gulf Cup and coming third in the 2015 Asian Cup – the same year he was voted Asian Player of the Year – it seemed a natural next step for Khalil and his team-mates to secure a long-awaited return to the world stage at Russia 2018 for Al-Abyad.
However, that campaign would ultimately end in disappointment after the side dropped vital points to direct qualification rivals. The only solace for Khalil was finishing as joint top-scorer (alongside Saudi Arabia’s Al Sahlawi), with 16 goals in 17 games.
In an interview with FIFA.com, Khalil explained how his side had come up short last time around, saying: “Yes, we wanted to realise the dream of everyone in the UAE and had the chance to do so in the final qualifying round, but small details made the difference. We beat Japan in Saitama but dropped points at home, which ultimately cost us a spot in Russia.”
UAE started their Asian Qualifiers campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 with two wins against Malaysia (2-1) and Indonesia (5-0), before suffering a shock loss to Thailand (2-1).
That said, they will have the chance to redeem themselves in what will be a testing encounter in Vietnam on Thursday.
Asked about the current qualifying campaign, Khalil said: “We’ve played three games and could’ve been top of the group, but the defeat to Thailand taught us a lesson. We have to work harder to win the upcoming games to progress to the final round.
“Our group is tough, just like all the other ones in this round. Every team has dropped points, but it’s important now not to lose any more.
"I think the schedule is in our favour as three of our [remaining five] games are at home, where we’ll have massive support from our fans.
"Progressing to the next round is our first target but Qatar 2022 is our main goal,” the 28-year-old added.
Khalil was recalled for the second qualifier against Indonesia, coming on a second half substitute, just as he did in the next game against Thailand.
Now though, with top scorer Ali Mabkhout (pictured above) suspended for the Vietnam match, Khalil's chances of returning to the starting XI look good, assuming Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk wants to adopt an attacking style.
Even if he comes on as a substitute, Khalil’s main objective will be to rediscover his best form after a dip last season.
“It happens to all players,” he said. “You have ups and downs, but thank God I was able to help Shabab Al Ahli win the cup last season. I’m working hard this season to regain my best form but it will take more playing time in competitive matches.
"Our AFC qualifying resumes at the end of March 2020, by which time most the players will be at their peak again. Then you will see Ahmed Khalil again, God willing.”
First though, UAE must focus on overcoming Vietnam this Thursday in Hanoi, before sitting out Matchday Six and then resuming their campaign on March 26 next year with the visit of Malaysia.
And while the team are hopeful of progressing to the final qualifying round, they know a lot of hard work remains if they are to end their FIFA World Cup wait at Qatar 2022.
Sources: FIFA.com, AFP
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