Saleh duo relishing Asian Cup stage Published on: 04-01-2019

It is not usual to narrate about foreign players plying their trade in Maltese football and who have the opportunity to represent their country in major continental competition.

However, as from tomorrow, the Maltese Premier League will be represented by two players in the 2019 Asian Cup that will be staged in the United Arab Emirates for the first time since 1996.

Floriana defender Mohammed Saleh will be donning the colours of Palestine while Raed Saleh will turn out for Oman.

2018-19 season have so far brought mixed fortunes for both players.

Mohammed has collected six appearances with Floriana in all competitions and has yet to taste victory with the Greens who are languishing ninth in the 14-team division.

On the other hand, Raed played 16 times for Valletta so far this season and has also put his name on the scoresheet in the Citizens’ 7-0 rout of Tarxien as the Malta champions are among the main challengers for silverware this season.

For Floriana’s Saleh, this will be his first major competition with the national team.

The 25-year old played 25 times for Palestine, scoring one goal and is relishing the chance to help his team improve on the previous showing in 2015, when in their debut appearance they bowed out from the group with three defeats and 11 goals conceded.

This time round, Palestine have good cause for optimism that they can provide a solid challenge.

In the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, Palestine were three points away from qualifying to the latter rounds of the preliminary phase.

Last October, they also claimed the Bangabandhu Cup after defeating Tajikistan on penalties in the final of the competition held in Bangladesh.

Most recently they put up some good showing in warm-up matches. Under the guidance of Algerian coach Noureddine Ould Ali, they grind out draws against Marcello Lippi’s China and heavyweights Iran.

Despite being engulfed in a never-ending conflict with Israel, the Palestinian crowd is eager to cheer on their local heroes on the biggest platform.

“I am really proud to represent the country of Palestine,” Saleh told the Times of Malta.

“Our participation in the Asian Cup means a lot to our country because they are huge fanatics of football.

“This competition is the biggest event in Asian football and we have the responsibility to make our people proud and share the Palestinian identity with honour.”

Palestinian fans flooded their social media profiles with messages of support for their home country, and such backing has surely increased the pressure on the players to perform.

Palestine, who are ranked 99th in the FIFA rankings, were handed a tough draw as they will face Jordan, Syria and the defending champions Australia in Group B.

While wary of the task at their hands, Saleh is confident that his team can hold its own in the United Arab Emirates.

“We started preparation for this tournament very early and we are really motivated to hit the ground running,” the Floriana defender explained.

“I believe that our team is capable of obtaining positive results, given our recent development and experience we have accumulated throughout our journey.”

Maltese lifestyle

Speaking about his spell at Floriana, the defender underlined the importance of adapting to the culture and lifestyle on our shores.

“Football-wise nothing really changed, because I continued to impose the game in my own way,” Saleh said.

“However, I had to adapt to the Maltese culture and lifestyle and I think I have managed to do that quickly and that has helped me to be more comfortable now.”

Just like Palestine, Oman will be hoping to progress out of the group stage for the first time and they will bank on their solid defensive shape and tactical organisation to reach their objective, even though they were dealt a blow after long-serving goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, who played in the English Premier League as well, is unavailable due to injury.

Their chances of progressing to the knock-out stages are boosted with the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams but in their Group F commitments, Raed and company will have to cross swords with some of Asia’s finest - Uzbekistan and Japan in particular before wrapping up the group stage phase against Turkmenistan.

In 2015, Saleh featured in all group games against South Korea, Australia and Kuwait, hence he will not have the debut nerves in his stomach.

Nonetheless, as one of the veterans in this roster with over 70 caps for his national team, he is raring to go and help Oman to achieve an important result in the UAE.

“I am very happy to represent Oman in such a competition,” the Valletta midfielder said.

“I am confident in our team’s talent and I think we can move out of our group, even though it won’t be an easy task for us.

“The level of Asian football is improving every year and with more teams in the competition, this year it will be very challenging.”

Oman’s slogan for this tournament is “One Dream” – a dream of becoming one of Asia’s finest and they have already started to lay the foundations for their ambitions after clinching the Gulf Cup last January.

Raed was one of the protagonists of the competition, living up to the hype of one of the best talents in Oman alongside the likes of Ahmed Kano, who is the nation’s skipper.

“Oman’s triumph in the Gulf Cup has been a huge morale-booster for us ahead of the Asian Cup and with God’s help, we can be serious challengers in this tournament as well.”

Source - Times of Malta