23 Tickets to UAE (February 2018)

Julio Baldivieso (C-Right) and his staff will have a lot to ponder 

In an ongoing series we will take a look at the stock of Palestine players ahead of the AFC Asian Cup Finals in 2019. This edition is the first post in the series.

Players are placed in three categories: In, On the Bubble, & Fringe



GOALKEEPER

Safe Hands: Rami Hamadi

In

1. Rami Hamadi (Hilal Al-Quds, 23, 6 caps/4 cleansheets)
2. Ghanem Mahajneh (Al-Bireh, 26, 1 cap/1 cleansheet) 

On The Bubble

3. Toufic Ali (Taraji Wadi Al-Nes, 29, 27 caps/9 cleansheets) 

Goalkeeper is a position that is relatively straightforward for incoming manager Julio Cesar Baldivieso. The local league does not have a host of competent goalkeepers that can compete on international level. Olympic team goalkeepers Naim Abu Aker and Ramzi Fakhouri might be considered fringe candidates but were clearly weak links during the AFC U23 Championship. Their reputation as strong WBPL goalkeepers simply did not translate on the international stage.

This leaves three goalkeepers who have at least one cap with senior team. Rami Hamadi has been consistent over the last three years and his lightning quick reflexes set him apart from the rest of the field. He is short for a goalkeeper (180 cm) but that should not trouble anyone. Mexico has played in World Cup matches with goalkeepers who were far shorter- Jorge Campos (1994/98) and Oscar Perez (2002/10).

The battle to back up Hamadi is far more interesting. Ghanem Mahajneh is underrated and has been a cornerstone of Al-Bireh's success in their first season back in the WBPL. That said, Toufic Ali has far more international experience. In complete juxtaposition to Rami Hamadi he was always seen as Ramzi Saleh's successor due to his freakish height (196 cm). That said, he has always had deficiencies in his game. While playing for the Olympic team, goal kicks were assigned to the center back, Mustafa Abu Kweik. At senior level, he hasn't been quick off his line and an argument can be made that he could have done better on five of the six goals he conceded during World Cup qualifying.

For Toufic Ali to have any future with the national team, Baldivieso has to decide whether his 27 caps can be counted as a bankable asset.  

CENTER BACK

Captain Fantastic: Bahdari tallied four goals for the national team in 2017


In

1. Abdelatif Bahdari (Shabab Al-Khaleel, 33, 48 caps/7 goals) 
2. Haitham Dheeb (Jabal Al-Mukaber, 31, 31 caps/1 goal) 

On The Bubble

3. Mohammed Abu Khamis (Hilal Al-Quds, 26, 2 caps/0 goals)
4. Mohammed Saleh (Ahli Al-Khaleel, 24, 3 caps/0 goals)
5. Tamer Salah (Hilal Al-Quds, 31, 12 caps/0 goals)
6. Michel Termanini (AFC Eskilstuna, 19, 0 caps)
7. Saado Abdel Salam (Platanias Chania, 20, 0 caps)

Fringe 

8. Alaa Abu Saleh (Bnei Sakhnin, 30, 3 caps/0 goals)

The other problem area lies in the heart of defence were no viable alternatives lie in wait for the ageing Abdelatif Bahdari and Haitham Dheeb.

Haitham Dheeb has been one of the most consistent contributors for the national team and 18 of the 31 games he has played in have ended in clean sheets. While Bahdari is nothing short of an age-defying freak and will most likely become the first 35 year old to play for the national team.

That said, if either should suffer an injury or dip in form the alternatives are either untested or error prone. At the time of writing, Bahdari is embroiled in a contract dispute with Shabab Al-Khaleel and anybody who has seen the hulking centreback in action knows that consistent, high level game time is crucial to unlocking his best form.

Mohammed Abu Khamis looks like the next name on the depth chart despite only having two caps to his name. The Hilal Al-Quds man was the only other center back to see the field in 2017.

Mohammed Saleh sealed a move to Jordanian giants Al-Faisaly earlier this year but due to registration restrictions he decided to pull out of the deal.

His time at Al-Ahli was marked by terrible inconsistency- he could score a goal at one end and be caught sleeping at the other in the same match. Former national team manager, Abdel Nasser Barakat, only played him as a right back in two friendlies- his major contribution over the two games was flopping to win a last minute penalty vs. Lebanon.

Tamer Salah has more experience than the other two alternatives listed above but his lack of pace is becoming more evident with every passing day. His 31 (soon to be 32) years of age do not present  a viable alternative to the current starters.

If a deal can somehow be arranged to bring back Alaa Abu Saleh from Bnei Sakhnin to the WBPL there would at least be an experienced, level headed character to rely on in case something happened to Dheeb or Bahdari. That option, following a horrendous time at Shabab Al-Khaleel, looks pretty unlikely which brings us to the young guns of the group.

Michel Termanini and Saado Abdel Salam didn't post a single clean sheet in their seven games together but the positives definitely outweighed the negatives in their performances. Termanini was less error prone than Abdel Salam but both could be viable starters if they are given guidance by a more experienced partner.

If Palestine want to build for the future, then the Asian Cup squad should include at least one of these names.

LEFT BACK

Jaber (R) is the front runner

In

1. Abdallah Jaber (Ahli Al-Khaleel, 24, 31 caps/2 goals) 
2. Fadi Salbees (Jabal Al-Mukaber, 24, 3 caps/0 goals) 

Fringe

3. Yousef Al-Ashhab (Shabab Al-Khaleel, 22, 0 caps/0 goals)

Not much of conversation to be had here. Abdallah Jaber is the national team's most consistent player and Fadi Salbees has proven a capable deputy. Yousef Al-Ashhab will have a very hard time cracking the squad if both Salbees and Jaber are healthy. Ten, or even five years ago, Palestine would have killed to have such a situation. The Jamal Mahmoud era was marked by a crisis at left back and a rotation of Raed Fares (a right back) and Mousa Abu Jazar (a midifielder) were deployed with little success.

That crisis opened the door for a relatively unknown 21 year old to make the position his own. Abdallah Jaber won his first cap on May 19th, 2014 and he has started 31 of the next 33 games. The other two starts went to Fadi Salbees. I would bet my house on both these players making the trip to the UAE in 11 months time. 

RIGHT BACK


In

1. Musab Al-Battat (Ahli Al-Khaleel, 24, 20 caps/1 goal) 


On the Bubble

2. Alexis Norambuena (Deportes Melipilla, 33, 13 caps/0 goals)
3. Jaka Ihbeisheh (unattached, 31,  13 caps/3 goals)

Fringe

4. Ahmed Mahajneh (Khader FC, 31, 18 caps/1 goal)
5. Musa Al-Farawi (Hilal Al-Quds, 20, 0 caps/ 0goals)

Unlike left back, the right back position is very much up for grabs. Musab Al-Battat seems to have solidified his claim and with age on his side can be confident of at least a spot on the roster.

His primary challengers will be two guys with a ton of experience, Alexis Noarmbuena has had a return to form with Deportes Melipilla- guiding them to the Chilean second tier. He also showed off his versatility in 2017 playing several games as a centre back. That versatility could be the key to getting a spot on the team.  

Speaking of versatility, Mr. Versatility- Jaka Ihbeisheh has played three positions with the national team (LM, RM, RB) and with the logjam of wingers in the squad, it seems that right back would be Ihbeisheh's best shot at returning to the Asian Cup. A lot will depend on his clubs situation and playing time in the interim.

At this time last year he was banging in goals in the Qatari second division. His time with Police Tero in Thailand provided playing time in tough circumstances. He will be reliant on an invite from Baldivieso to any upcoming camp in order to impress.

Handicapping this position with Baldivieso on a one year contract is no easy task. The Bolivian is incentivized to build a squad that can deliver immediate results and should Al-Battat err in 2018, I would not be surprised to see Baldivieso pull him in favor of a veteran who can execute more effectively.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS 

Darwish (L) is Palestine's key cog in midfield

In

1. Mohammed Darwish (Hilal Al-Quds, 26, 15 caps/0 goals)

On the Bubble

2. Shadi Shaban (Ahli Al-Khaleel, 25, 7 caps/0 goals)
3. Mohammed Yameen (Hilal Al-Quds, 23, 9 caps/0 goals)
4. Pablo Tamburrini (San Antonio Unido, 28, 11 caps/1 goal)

Fringe

5. Mohammed Bassim (St. Francis University, 22, 0 caps/0 goals)
6. Mohammed El-Kayed (Skenderbeu, 20, 0 caps/0 goals)
7. Odai Kharoub (Thaqafi Tulkarem, 24, 1 cap/0 goals)
8. Mohanad Fannoun (Shabab Al-Khaleel, 22, 0 caps/0 goals)

The one constant in the midfield over the last two and a half years has been the presence of Mohammed Darwish. His physical presence, positional sense, and long range passing has been key in Palestine's rise up the FIFA rankings. His partner in crime has featured a rotation of three other players, Pablo Tamburrini was the go to option before Shadi Shaban took over in late 2016 but was left to battle Mohammed Yameen for the rest of 2017.

The other names on the list are more intriguing and with a new manager coming in have a real chance at making the Asian Cup squad. Mohammed Bassim is a versatile player and was one of the most consistent contributors for the Olympic team. With Shadi Shaban and Mohammed Yameen going through their respective rough patches perhaps Bassim can force his way into the side. Bassim can also contribute in different positions and as mentioned before in this piece, versatility can sometimes be the key to players making the cut.

Pablo Tamburrini was recognized as one of the best players in the Chilean Segunda but is currently working his way back from injury. That opens a window for Mohammed El-Kayed who can provide a more attacking option in midfield. His recent transfer to Albanian giants Skenderbeu could be a platform to bigger and better things but he remains and outsider at this point.

In fact, with a new manager perhaps there will be a departure from the double pivot that was favored by Abdel Nasser Barakat. It is an outside chance, given Baldivieso's proclivity in recent years but it could factor into which type of central midfielder   

WIDE MIDFIELDERS 

Jonathan (8)- Palestine's talisman.

In

1. Jonathan Cantillana (Hilal Al-Quds, 25, 14 caps/8 goals)

On the Bubble

2. Hosam Aiesh (Östersunds, 22, 0 caps, 0 goals)
3. Tamer Seyam (Hilal Al-Quds, 25, 24 caps, 5 goals)
4. Sameh Maraaba (Ahli Al-Khaleel, 25, 16 caps, 8 goals)
5. Ahmad Maher Wridat (Shabab Al-Dhahrieh, 26, 21 caps, 8 goals)
6. Mahmoud Eid (Kalmar FF, 24, 12 caps, 1 goal)
7. Islam Batran (Ahli Al-Khaleel, 23, 2 caps, 0 goals)

Fringe

8. Mahmoud Abu Warda (Balata, 22, 0 caps, 0 goals)
9. Mohamad Darwish (Arminia Hannover, 20, 0 caps, 0 goals)
10. Imad Zatara (unattached, 33, 26 caps, 3 goals)

Not a single wide midfielder should feel comfortable with less than a year to go before the big dance. Jonathan Cantillana is the most consistent performer of the bunch and has consistently delivered results in big moments.

Abdel Nasser Barakat used to favor the use of Tamer Seyam and Sameh Maraaba who were able to bully the smaller opponents in Asia but have yet to prove they can cut it against Asia's elite. With their biggest advocate no longer managing the national team there is a window of opportunity for others to stake their claim.

Islam Batran has shown flashes of what he can do in limited playing time and although things didn't work out for him in Egypt he should be commended on testing himself in a bigger league. His move back to Ahli Al-Khaleel might just swing the title to the red side of Hebron. He has more goals (5) in fewer games than Tamer Salah and has struck in more games than his teammate Sameh Maraaba.

Ahmad Maher started 2017 off with a bang- he set up Yashir Pinto's winner against Yemen in a friendly and then came off the bench to score twice in a 3-0 win over Maldives. Despite his heroics, the former Wehdat player could not force his way into the starting XI. This might be his chance to do so.

The other x factors to consider are Swedish based duo Mahmoud Eid and Hosam Aiesh. Although Eid has been deployed as a forward he has spent much of his time as a winger while playing with Kalmar. After a tough year plagued by injury, Eid is back to full health and a managerial change might just give him a new lease on life with the national team.

Hosam Aiesh declared for Palestine in mid-2017 but has yet to play for the national team, he has a fantastic engine and can even be deployed as a right wingback in a 3-5-2 formation.

There is still an opportunity for a fringe player to force his way into the side. The Olympic team's left flank was marshaled by Mohamad Darwish (the other one) and his ability to set up his teammates really stood out. Mahmoud Abu Warda also had great performances for the young Fida'i and could be an option for the senior team on the right.

FORWARDS

On Fire: Wadi has set the Jordanian League alight. 

In

1. Yashir Pinto Islame (Curicó Unido, 26, 8 caps/5 goals)
2. Mahmoud Wadi (Ahli Amman, 23, 1 cap/0 goals)

On the Bubble


3. Ahmad Awad (Dalkurd FF, 25, 3 caps/1 goal)

Fringe

4. Matías Jadue (Krabi FC, 25, 7 caps/1 goal)
5. Oday Dabbagh (Hilal Al-Quds, 19, 0 caps/0 goals)
6. Mahmoud Yousef (Shabab Al-Khaleel, 20, 1 cap/2goals)
7. Mohammed Balah (Ahli Amman, 24, 1 cap/0 goals)
8. Carlos Salom* (Bangkok United, 30, 1 cap/1 goal)
9. Saleh Chihadeh (SC Kriens, 24, 0 caps/0 goals)
10. Shihab Qombor (Jabal Al-Mukaber, 20, 0 cap/0 goals)
11. Rodrigo Gattas (Rangers de Talca, 26, 0 caps/0 goals)
12. Ahmad Abu Nahyeh (Hapeol Umm El-Fahm, 26, 9 caps, 6 goals)

Typically, 23 man squads consist of at least four forwards. So that leaves one spot that could got to nine other candidates. The three names currently pegged to go are the ones that make the most sense. Yashir Pinto has been Palestine's talisman over the last year. He bagged winning goals against Yemen, Oman and Bhutan (away) and is one of the more consistent national team contributors.

Mahmoud Wadi did not score on his national team debut in the 8-1 thrashing of Maldives but he showed off the skills that make him a nightmare for defenders to deal with. It is no coincidence that he is top scorer in the Jordanian League.

No Palestinian is more important to a European side than Ahmad Awad is to Dalkurd FF. Awad played a starring role in three promotions for the side from northern Sweden. He tallied eight league goals and six assists in 24 appearances- averaging an assist or goal every 104 minutes in the Swedish second tier.

He will most likely slot into a supporting role just behind the likes of Wadi or Pinto but his runs and passing should disrupt the defence and create a ton of chances for his strike partner.

So who will be the fourth (and possibly fifth) striker in the side?

The wild card in this scenario is Carlos Salom, the Argentine born striker recently moved to Bangkok United and if the PFA can get his paperwork sorted then he would become the most viable option.

Oday Dabbagh is the flavor of the month after his scintillating performances in China during the AFC U23 Championships. He also provides the coaching staff with a left footed option that can play on the wing. The coaching staff might decide that versatility is enough to include him in the side.

Dabbagh will need to convince the coaching staff that he is a better option than Matías Jadue, the Santiago born striker has moved down a division in Thailand, emulating a strategy he took in Malaysia two years ago. Jadue will get playing time and if that correlates with goals and wins then Jadue could find himself in the Thai top flight next season and that might be enough to force his way into the side.

There are a multitude of other options that could force their way into the reckoning. After bouncing around for the last couple of years, Rodrigo Gattas seems to have found a home with former Palestine international Leo Zamora and Ranger de Talca. Should he rediscover his scoring touch in the Chilean second tier then there could yet be a path to the national team.

That said, options closer to home stand a better chance at making the Asian Cup squad. The WBPL candidates are youngsters Mahmoud Yousef (who has already scored for the senior team) and Shihab Qinbar who were good but not spectacular with the Olympic team.

Mohammed Balah who hasn't reached Mahmoud Wadi's heights with Ahli Amman is also in the mix. I would expect his chances to increase should he take Wadi's position in the team when he inevitably departs in the summer.

Finally, the man who has more goals than any other name on the list is perhaps the least likely to be on the plane to the United Arab Emirates. Ahmad Abu Nahyeh's choice to join Hapoel Umm El-Faham of the Israeli third tier rules him out from being called up for the national team. Unless he makes a switch back to the Palestinian leagues next season there will be no national team call-up in the immediate future.


Football Palestine's 23 man squad based on current form



GK: Rami Hamadi, Ghanem Mahajneh, Toufic Ali 


DF: Abdelatif Bahdari, Haitham Dheeb, Michel Termanini, Saado Abdelsalam, Musab Al-Battat, Abdallah Jaber, Fadi Salbees, Alexis Norambuena. 

MF: Mohammed Darwish, Shadi Shaban, Mohammed Bassim, Mohammed El-Kayed, Hosam Aiesh, Jonathan Cantillana, Mahmoud Eid, Islam Batran

FW: Yashir Pinto, Ahmad Awad, Mahmoud Wadi, Oday Dabbagh

Standby: Jaka Ihbeisheh, Pablo Tamburrini, Mohammed Abu Khamis  

Average Age (at the start of the tournament): 25.5 
2015 Holdovers: (6) Rami Hamadi, Toufic Ali, Abdallah Jaber, Musab Al-Battat, Abdelatif Bahdari, Mahmoud Eid