United Arab Emirates has emerged as a real threat in recent times and a goalless draw at home to Australia in October and an inspired a spirited run at the Gulf Cup, which ultimately ended in the last four, will give it confidence heading into the AFC Asian Cup 2015.
COACH: Mahdi ALI (UAE)
CAPTAIN: Omar ABDULRAHMAN (Al Ain)
NICKNAME: Al Abyad (The Whites)
ASIAN CUP APPEARANCES: 8 (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2007, 2011)
BEST FINISH: Runner-Up (1996)
FIFA RANKING: 80
AFC RANKING: 5
HOW IT QUALIFIED: Finished ahead of Uzbekistan in Group E with a dominant campaign that yielded five wins and a draw from six matches.
RECENT FORM: Lost to Saudi Arabia in the dying stages of the Gulf Cup semi-final before seeing off Jordan by the single goal in its sole Asian Cup warm-up match on the Gold Coast late last year.
MAIN MAN: Omar ABDULRAHMAN (Al Ain)
At just 23 the attacking midfielder is already being hailed as one of the finest players to have emerged from the UAE – even if he did spend many of his formative years in Saudi Arabia.
Instantly recognizable by his distinctive hairstyle, the Al Ain man is a gifted craftsman of the highest order. A wonderful passer, whether long or short, able to take on and see off opponents with ease in 1-on-1 situations and also able to finish.
He arrives in Australia short on preparation after being injured in the Gulf Cup but if fit Abdulrahmann has the potential to be one of the key playmakers at the tournament.
ONE TO WATCH: Ali MABKHOUT (Al Jazira)
Along with Ahmed Khalil, the 24-year-old Mabkhout provides knockout goalscoring potential – fast and a deadly finisher, his four goals in the group stage of the recent Gulf Cup showed how lethal a finisher he can be.
UAE, in recent years, gone from being a good side that can get results in regional competitions to being one that many are tipping as an outsider to win the Asian Cup.
Relative stability has arrived with the appointment of Mahdi Ali, a man who has overseen every youth level with the nation that he represented with distinction in the late 1980s.
A Gulf Cup triumph in 2013 and an historic qualification for the 2012 Olympic Games has pointed the way to a bright future for a squad of young players – many of whom have come up through the various youth ranks with Ali.
The coach prefers a 4-4-2 although there have been calls for him to switch to a 4-5-1 - but under either system the key players remain those in the final third.
For a long time UAE was considered an exciting attacking force but in recent years the defensive unit has improved dramatically, so much so that Ismail Ahmed was recently one of three players nominated for the AFC Player of the Year Award.
The midfield quartet of Amer Abdulrahman, Khamis Ismail, Ismail Al Hammadi and Omar Abdulrahman are both stable and electrifying – with the latter a playmaker of the highest order.
An injury picked up in the Gulf Cup has hampered his preparation but if fit Abdulrahman has the ability to single-handedly turn matches.
Up front too, the options are strong, Ali Mabkhout scored four goals in the group stage of the Gulf Cup and is the highest Emirati goalscorer in the Arabian Gulf League this season while Ahmed Khalil is a strong and powerful finisher.
This is a group that has grown together and that is building into potentially something very special.
UAE should progress with opening group opponent Qatar from a very tricky group and has the ability to go all the way to the final should key players emerge fit.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: 4-4-2
GOALKEEPERS: 1. Majed NASER (Al Ahli); 12. Khalid EISA (Al Ain); 22. Mohamed AL HOSANI (Sharjah)
DEFENDERS: 3. Walid ABBAS (Al Ahli); 6. Mohanad SALEM (Al Ain); 8.Hamdan AL KAMALI (Al Wahda); 9. Abdulaziz HUSSAIN (Al Ahli); 14. Abdulaziz SANQOUR (Al Ahli); 18. Mohammed FAWZI (Al Ain); 19. Ismail AHMED (Al Ain); 23. Mohamed AHMED (Al Ain)
MIDFIELDERS: 2. Hassan IBRAHIM (Al Shabab); 4. Habib FARDAN (Al Ahli); 5. Amer ABDULRAHMAN (Baniyas); 10. Omar ABDULRAHMAN (Al Ain); 13. Khamis ISMAIL (Al Jazira); 15. Ismail AL HAMMADI (Al Ahli); 16. Mohamed ABDULRAHMAN (Al Ain); 17. Majed HASSAN (Al Ahli); 21. Haboush SALEH (Baniyas)
FORWARDS: 7. Ali MABKHOUT (Al Jazira); 11. Ahmed KHALIL (Al Ahli); 20. Saeed AL KHATIRI (Al Wasl)
GROUP C FIXTURES:
Sunday 11 January 2015
United Arab Emirates v Qatar, Canberra
Thursday 15 January 2015
Bahrain v United Arab Emirates, Canberra
Monday 19 January 2015
Iran v United Arab Emirates, Brisbane