Having steered United Arab Emirates to glory at last year's AFC U-19 Championship and claimed the tournament's best player and top scorer awards, it should be no surprise that Ahmed Khalil has high hopes for his career. "My next goal is the FIFA U-20 World Cup and I want to do my best to score more goals for my country," said the 2008 AFC Youth Player of the Year.
The 18-year-old is following closely in the footsteps of Ismail Matar, whose outstanding performances at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in UAE six years ago earned him the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament's top performer. However, before Khalil attempts to emulate his illustrious predecessor at Egypt 2009 this September, Khalil is faced with the urgent task of helping the senior side try to revive their qualifying hopes for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
With their exceptional record at youth level, expectations for UAE were high ahead of this preliminary campaign. Yet their relatively poor showing in Asia's final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010 has confounded these expectations, leaving the team languishing at the bottom of their group with just a single point from their first four games.
One of the key reasons behind their struggles has been the team's disappointing goal return, with profligacy in front of goal undermining the good work of a creative midfield. UAE have scored just four in the final stage of qualifying, and while they netted seven in the previous stage, four of those were scored by Matar, providing further evidence of a lack of goalscoring options.
Emirati striking woes were not helped by the shortage of striking alternatives available in their domestic league. With the majority of offensive positions occupied by foreign imports, mostly Brazilian forwards, local strikers were left with few chances to make inroads, much to the disappointment of national coach Dominique Bathenay.
Even after picking up their only point of the final phase to date in their last match, a 1-1 draw with Iran, the French coach was left to reflect on a wastefulness that threatens to kill off their FIFA World Cup dream. "We created so many chances but were just unable to convert them," Bathenay lamented. "This could prove costly, although we still have a chance mathematically."
With UAE desperate to unearth fresh talent to shore up their attacking options alongside Matar, and with local alternatives at a premium, the task is likely to fall on Kahlil's young shoulders.
Even prior to Khalil's star showing at the Asian U-19 Championship, his striking talents did not go unnoticed by former coach Bruno Metsu, who handed the youngster his national team debut. Although the total playing time in four qualifiers was amounted to less 45 minutes, Kahlil gained some much-needed international experiences and exposure.
Bathenay continued his predecessor's trust in the striking prodigy when he took over last November, testing him in the crucial match-up against Iran, when Kahlil came off bench to play the final half-hour. The Frenchman's faith was quickly repaid as Kahlil scored in January's 5-0 victory over Malaysia in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifying opener to break his international duck.
All that now remains to be seen is whether UAE's latest prodigy will be given his first start in their next two qualifiers, against Korea DPR on 28 March and Saudi Arabia only four days later. With his team's qualifying hopes hanging by a thread, it seems Bathenay is left with few options but to utilise every lethal weapon at his disposal.