As the UAE is swept by Gulf Cup fever, Emirati fans are hoping star striker Ahmed Khalil will be donning his golden boots once again when they take on 10-time champions Kuwait in the first semi-final in Bahrain on Tuesday.
It certainly promises to be an adrenaline-charged 90 minutes, with all eyes on the Al Ahli striker from Dubai to find his feet once again and repeat the magic that saw Oman crash out of the Gulf Cup.
There was an explosion of joy across the Emirates when Khalil finally found his goalscoring touch with a double in four minutes.
The ‘Red Knight’ (Al Ahli colours and team name) had not scored a competitive goal for the UAE senior team since September 2011, and his strike in last month’s friendly against Yemen was his first in any senior game since then.
Asia’s Youth Player of the Year in 2008, Khalil who has been nurtured and blossomed through the ranks, has reignited the passion of a nation hungry for success since winning their only Gulf Cup title at Zayed Sports City in 2007.
With a homegrown coach Mahdi Ali at the helm, Emiratis have all the more reason to be proud of ‘The Whites’ who have carried all before them in the run up to the knockout round following wins over Qatar and hosts Bahrain.
Reigning Gulf Cup champions Kuwait have knocked out Saudi Arabia who stopped UAE in the semi-finals of the last Gulf Cup in Yemen.
On the other hand Kuwait, beat them in both legs of 2014 World Cup qualifying in 2011.
But Ali’s men will be buoyed by the fact that they beat Kuwait 3-0 in a friendly last September.
Little wonder there is great deal of optimism that the UAE can repeat their feat of 2007 with the nation urging its citizens to rally behind the team.
Free flights to host nation Bahrain, at the directive of President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ensures fans will present an electrifying presence in the stadium as the UAE faces off Kuwait.
Even female fans haven’t shied away from stepping up to cheer for their home squad, several of whom eager to catch one of those free flights to catch the action live in the stadium.
“I am so proud of the UAE and its presence at the Gulf Cup. I believe we have a strong chance this year to repeat the magic of 2007,” said Muna Al Nasser. “We just need to keep our cool, allow our strikers to play ball.”
Al Nasser added: “If there is one Kuwaiti player we should vary of, its striker Yousef Al Sulaiman. He played aggressive during Kuwait’s match against Saudi Arabia and this time it could prove a challenge.”
Quiz her about where she plans to watch the match and Al Nasser said that she and her friends will hang out at a shisha café in Jumeirah, surrounded by UAE fans.
Her younger sister Mira, who also claims to be a footie fan, shyly responded: “My favourite player is Majed Hassan. He is very good.”
The midfielder had his moment in the spotlight in last Tuesday’s match against host Bahrain, with his 85th-minute win.
The UAE coach appeared confident at the press conference for his side to life the cup this year, albeit 10-time Gulf Cup champions Kuwait will prove to be a formidable side.
Meanwhile, the other semi-final that seems to have been overshadowed by the UAE-Kuwaiti clash could also prove to be a nail-biter as Iraq faces hosts Bahrain in the Group B match, where the reds appear confident of sailing through.
Outdoor venues are sure to fill up from 4.30pm on Tuesday, as fans make a beeline to grab a good seat for the UAE-Kuwait semifinal, which kicks off at 5.15pm UAE time.
The second semi-final between Iraq and Bahrain will start at 8.45pm UAE time.