By Peter HUTCHISON
Sharpshooter Ali Mabkhout can win a tight race for the Asian Cup’s golden boot when the United Arab Emirates face Iraq for the consolation prize of finishing third on Friday.
The UAE went down 2-0 to Australia this week and Iraq lost by the same scoreline to South Korea as their dreams of Asian Cup glory were shattered in the semi-finals.
Both teams must now pick themselves up for an unwanted third-place play-off in Newcastle, although Mabkhout has more motivation than most.
Partnered by playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, Mabkhout has already grabbed four goals, placing him joint top of the scoring charts alongside Jordan’s Hamza Aldaradreh.
Among his strikes are the fastest goal in Asian Cup history — after just 14 seconds against Bahrain — and the volley that put UAE 1-0 up against Japan before they shocked the holders on penalties.
Another goal against Iraq would take the Al Jazira marksman clear on the scorers’ list and help him towards his aim of securing a big-money move to Europe.
Socceroo Tim Cahill is lurking behind Mabkhout with three goals, while South Korea’s Son Heung-Min and Lee Jeong-Hyeop both have two ahead of Saturday’s final in Sydney.
UAE coach Mahdi Ali could still opt to rest Mabkhout, who top-scored at November’s Gulf Cup and in Asian Cup qualification, against Radhi Shenaishil’s Iraq.
Of greater concern for Ali will be that UAE, favourites to host the 2019 Asian Cup, finish third in what has been their best campaign since they were runners-up in 1996.
“This is a good opportunity to give other players a chance and to give some a rest,” Ali said. “Of course I will make some changes.”
Meanwhile Iraq’s Shenaishil, on loan for the tournament from Qatar Sports Club, will want a strong finish with the chance still hovering for a permanent deal with his national team.
“After my club contract ends, I can’t predict my future,” the former Iraq international said.
Iraqi icon Younis Mahmoud is also looking to the future after a team packed with youngsters encouragingly reached the last four, downing arch-rivals Iran along the way.
“I’m not retiring after this Cup. We’re now building a new generation and we need to have experienced players with them in the national team,” the striker said.
“The World Cup qualifiers start in four or five months. Hopefully I’ll be with the team in the World Cup qualifiers.”