Al-Fursan have wrapped up an eventful three-week preparatory period ahead of the 2012 WAFF Championship. Today, the team departs the Qatari capital for Kuwait where they will start intensively planning for their battle against the hosts and holders. Thusfar, luck has not been on Palestine’s side as a combination of life under occupation, logistical problems, injury, and the Saudi Pro League will rob them of several key players.
Mahmoud has yet to get a real look in at players plying their trade in Gaza. Houssam Wadi was the only Gaza-based player included in the squad and he had to withdraw from the squad with a pulled hamstring. Also joining him on the treatment table are Ismail Amour, Fahed Attal, and defender Nadim Barghouthi.
Logistical problems still hamper the national team’s ability to call in players based in Lebanon and Gaza but Jamal Mahmoud has stated that the FA will address that problem after the WAFF Championship.
For whatever reason, the Saudi Pro League will continue playing despite Saudi Arabia’s presence in the tournament. The clubs have released Saudi players but have not afforded the same right to players of other nationalities. This means Abdelatif Al-Bahdari absence from the national team now stands at a whopping 17 months with the player yet to play for Jamal Mahmoud as a result. Moreover, the team will once again be denied an opportunity to call-up Anas & Ahmad Sharbini who play for Ittihad and Al-Wahda, respectively.
Injuries should mean few surprises but there are some key decisions to be made. Ramzi Saleh should be fit to start in goal despite not playing league football in nearly a year for his Egyptian side Smouha FC. If that is not the case, then Mahmoud will be given the tough choice of picking between Shbair and Toufic Ali who have both proven to be steady, if unspectacular, understudies to the national team captain.
For the first game, Palestine will not be able to call on the services of Alexis Norambuena (he plays his last match for Jagiellonia 24 hours beforehand). So the decision is who starts at left back, Musa Abu Jazar was shockingly bad against Bahrain and while Hani Naboulse has shown promise, Mahmoud has voiced concern about his tactical expertise. The rest of the back line is straight forward Fares, Jarun, and Mustafá will start from right to left barring suspension or injury.
In midfield, Husam Abu Saleh and Imad Zatara will most definitely start on the wings. In the middle Khader Youssef is set to reach the 40 cap mark during this tournament but Mahmoud will have to choose a partner for him in midfield. My preference would be Abu Jazar but if he starts at left back then expect to see Kawre’ instead; the chances of Al-Koori starting over the other two are remote.
Ashraf Nu’man will be given license to roam and exploit the space in between the lines and his form could hold the key to Palestine’s chances. He will most likely be paired with Eyad Abugharqud whose speed will help create space for Nu’man to operate.
As for difference makers off the bench Palestine will most likely call on Abdelhamid Abuhabib or Khaldoun Al-Halman if they need a spark.
It is hard to handicap Palestine’s chances; history says Palestine would be lucky to earn more than a single point from their three matches. The statistics are damning, in the 13 matches Palestine has played over the past six editions they have never won and only escaped defeat twice.
Recent form does give fans a reason to be optimistic. Al-Fursan have managed a draw and a win against Syria in recent weeks and in their 2-0 loss to Bahrain showcased a proactive, fast paced style of play.
Their toughest test will be in the first game as the Kuwaitis will look to build prepare for the Gulf Cup and 2015 Asian Cup qualifying. For whatever reason, Kuwait seems to have Palestine’s number at senior level and that hasn’t changed under Jamal Mahmoud. The two sides have met twice in the last 12 months with both matches generating largely indifferent play but resulting in a 3-0 extra time win and a 2-0 victory for Al-Azraq. One can only hope that the players have learned their lesson but the reality is Palestine stands a better chance in the other two games.
In their second game, Palestine will take on Oman for the first time in their history and although Paul Le Guen will be without Wigan’s Ali El-Habsi and several Saudi Pro League stars, the Frenchman is bound to have his side well drilled and prepared. That said, this is the game Palestine will feel most confident of winning since the stated aim of the side is to experiment and blood in new players.
Equally challenging are Theo Bücker’s Lebanon who Palestine haven’t faced since their rebirth fourteen years ago. The make-up of Lebanon squad- local players interspersed with professionals who play abroad- is very similar to Palestine’s. Despite being evenly matched in nearly every aspect, Lebanon could have an edge having been battled hardened by the demands of World Cup qualifying.
If Palestine could collect four points from Oman and Lebanon then the campaign could be termed a success- even if it results in an early exit.