|Fadi Zidan puts an end to proceedings in Tehran|
Palestine’s Olympic team closed out their qualifying 2016 AFC U23 Championship/Rio 2016 qualifying in epic fashion on Tuesday, hammering Nepal 4-0.
Despite their dominance, Palestine struggled to capitalize on some great chances throughout the game, only opening the scoring after half an hour, courtesy of a Mohammed Mara’aba goal.
The same player doubled the score 63 minutes in. Taraji Wadi Al-Nes striker Fadi Zidan then put the finishing touches on the win with goals in the 64th and 81st minute.
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The win means Palestine finish third in the group behind Saudi Arabia and Iran both of whom punched a ticket to the U23 Championship finals in Qatar next year.
Saudi Arabia’s shock 2-1 win over Iran means that even if Palestine had escaped with a deserved draw against the Saudis (a penalty was wrongly awarded in the 88th minute by the Omani linesman) they would have still finished third in the group on seven, as opposed to six, points.
Advancing alongside Iran as the best runners up were Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen. Uzbekistan are currently ranked as the fifth best runner up but could lose their spot to the runner up from Group B (Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan were scheduled to play in Pakistan but hosting rights were stripped from Pakistan after the church bombings in Lahore.)
Rounding out the field of 16 are hosts Qatar, Australia, Korea Republic, Korea DPR, Syria, China PR, Iraq, Japan, and UAE.
Perhaps if there were fewer groups, like in the previous iteration of the qualifying tournament, perhaps Palestine would have stood a better chance. Instead Palestine were left to compete in a group with the 2013 finalist (Saudi Arabia) and a traditional powerhouse (Iran).
Given the circumstances, Palestine fared quite well and if we were to compare this participation to the one three years ago it shows marked improvement under the leadership of Abdel-Nasser Barakat.
Last time out, Palestine gained a paltry five points from five games, failing to beat the likes of Sri Lanka (1-1) and Kyrgyzstan (0-0). They were thoroughly beaten by Saudi Arabia (4-0) and threw away points from a winning position in a 2-1 loss to Syria. Their lone win was a narrow 1-0 victory against Pakistan.
In attempting to qualify for the 2016 iteration of the U23 Championship and the Rio Olympics Palestine dispatched of Afghanistan with relative ease (2-0, with a missed penalty). Their pivotal game against Saudi Arabia would have generated a point if not for a phantom penalty awarded by the Omani linesman at the game’s death.
Even against Iran, Palestine showed a great deal of maturity in approaching the game and the 3-0 scoreline was perhaps a tad harsh.
The gulf in quality that prevented Palestine from snatching points against their established points was manifested in their wastefulness in the attacking third- Palestine came close to taking the lead against Saudi Arabia and they should have equalized in the second half vs. Iran through Fadi Zidan. Plenty of opportunities were there against Nepal and Afghanistan as well and an argument could be made that those score lines should have been larger.
The only way to get better is to gain exposure and some players in this squad surely benefited from being part of the qualifiers in 2012 and playing at the Asian Cup with the senior team. This was the second go-around for Rami Hamadi, Mus’ab Al-Battat, Yazan Iwaiwi, Ibrahim Jalayata, and captain Mahmoud Sheikhqasem and their experience shone through as they were amongst the most consistent performers.
Future contributors to the senior team are easily identifiable: Rami Hamadi, Mus’ab Al-Battat, and Abdallah Jaber are fixtures already and their roles will only grow with time. Mahmoud Sheikhqasem will undoubtedly no longer remain on the periphery with injury sidelining Hesham Salhe for the majority of 2015 and Murad Ismail turning 33 this year.
Then there are players who have yet to make their national team debuts for the senior team. It remains to be seen how Jalayta, Abu Asfour, and Hazem Abu Hammad develop but they’ll be young enough to participate in this competition again in two years.
Fadi Zidan is new to the player pool but should be called up immediately- his speed and poaching capabilities should add a different element to Palestine’s attack. Since joining Taraji Wadi Al-Nes in the winter transfer window he’s scored in eight goals across all competitions- including a double against Al-Shorta in the AFC Cup.
Mohammed Mara’ba should also be considered bolster the senior’s team attack. He was excellent in the Asian Games (scoring against Oman and Tajikistan) and was key in Palestine winning the Al-Nakba Cup, scoring the winner in the final against Jordan. Even more impressive, Mara’aba’s eight goals count for more than a third of Shabab Al-Khader’s WBPL goal haul of 23.
Given the fact that the PFA replaced Jamal Mahmoud (who is taking his former employers to court for $94,000 in back pay) with their Technical Director ahead of the biggest games in their history it seems unreasonable to expect a high profile, or even low profile, foreign coach to lead Al-Fida’i.
Everything is in line for Abdel-Nasser Barakat to take over the national team after having secured his ‘A’ coaching license last fall. He has broad experience working as an FA administrator and as a manager in the WBPL and in the Women’s league.
His work with the Olympic squad shows that he knows how to set up a team tactically and Palestine were nothing short of sumptuous when they won their group at the Asian Games- scoring goals and winning games for the first time in the competition.
One would think he would be the best candidate as Palestine looks to infuse a dose of youth into the national team.