UAE strike force on red alert

After spurning numerous chances in the 2-2 draw against Group F rivals South Africa, UAE's strike tandem of Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhoot have the task of redeeming themselves against Honduras on Wednesday. Should they fail to do so, the Asian champions' hopes of progressing further at Egypt 2009 could well be over.

Through the teenage front men had a day to forget against the South Africans, it would perhaps be unfair to identify their patchy performances as the main reason for UAE's stuttering start to the group.

After all, Mahdi Redha's charges came up against an ambitious South African side spearheaded by the hugely promising centre-forward Kermit Erasmus. And though Ahmed and Ali were clearly overshadowed by their opposite number, coach Redha, known as 'The Captain' by his players and assistants, refused to single them out for blame when the final whistle sounded.

"What do you expect? That's football. A striker can't possibly take every chance that comes his way. What stood out for me was that they put in a lot of effort and looked dangerous too."

"The Captain got us together after the match and told us to stay confident," Ahmed Khalil, the top scorer at the AFC U-19 Championship with four goals, tells "As far as he was concerned we just lacked a little bit of luck. He told us that he was happy."

I clicked with Ahmed straight away. We've become good friends and I think you can see that out on the pitch.
Ali Mabkhoot on his partnership with Ahmed Khalil

So did Redha's post-match debriefing have the desired effect? "To be honest I'm not going to get worked up about it," adds Ali Mabkhoot. "Forwards have good and bad days and all you can do is try and forget your poor performances and wait for better times to come."

Yet despite their problems in front of goal, UAE still managed to come away with a valuable draw thanks to a couple of stoppage-time strikes. "The most important was not to lose. A point is always better than nothing," explains Khalil, who was forced to come off midway through the second half in Alexandria because of cramp.

Theyab Awana's match-saving header, which came three minutes into injury time, was met with great relief by the entire UAE squad, Khalil included.

"I just exploded with joy and ran on to the pitch to join my team-mates," he says. "I'd already been booked and I could easily have been sent off, although I have to say at that particular moment I wouldn't have cared if I had been (laughs)."

Wayward finishing aside, the strike partners impressed with their on-field understanding. Whenever Khalil found space, Mabkhoot showed an uncanny knack for getting the ball to him. And when the UAE defence hit the ball long, the latter was invariably on hand to collect and supply his partner, creating the impression that the two have been playing together for years.

"I've only been with the national team for the last three or four months," explains the reserved Mabkhoot. "But I clicked with Ahmed straight away. We've become good friends and I think you can see that out on the pitch."

All the duo need to do now is to bring that understanding to fruition by scoring goals, which would also further their personal ambitions of playing club football in Europe.

"The World Cup is a chance for us to show our talent," comments Mabkhoot. "I know the scouts have come to see us," adds his attacking sidekick. "It's an added pressure but it also motivates me to give 110 per cent. I feel that this is the right time to leave the country and if an opportunity comes up, we wouldn't think twice about it."

And to reinforce their point, the ambitious twosome point to the example of their compatriot Ismaeil Matar, winner of the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Cup UAE 2003, who has deliberated over several offers and still finds himself in the national league.

Yet that is not the limit of their ambitions. The intrepid Khalil and Mabkhoot have also set their sights on appearing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and contesting the Spanish clásico, with Ahmed hoping to one day pull on a Barcelona shirt and Ali to run out in the white of Real Madrid.

If they can start impressing the scouts with their finishing, they might just be able to realise those dreams.