Muscat: Former champions Oman will have to take on their campaign in the 21st edition of the Gulf Cup in Manama without their captain, Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Al Habsi’s elder brother, Ahmad, confirmed that the English Premier League star will not turn out for his country in Bahrain. “The Wigan calendar clashes with Oman’s Gulf Cup campaign,” he told Gulf News.
Wigan play their FA Cup third round match against Bournemouth on Saturday, the day Oman start their campaign against hosts Bahrain.
The senior Al Habsi also said the Wigan management are worried about possible injuries to the 31-year-old glovesman.
“He injured his shoulder during the World Cup qualifying match against Japan, so they are worried now about releasing him,” said Ahmad, who is also a board member of the Oman Football Association.
OFA Chairman Sayyid Khalid Bin Hamad Bin Hamoud Al Bu Saidi told media before the team left for Manama on Thursday morning: “We tried our best to convince the Wigan management to release Ali for the Gulf Cup. We suggested they could let him play a couple of matches, but Wigan manager [Roberto] Martinez declined our request.”
Oman, who are ranked 95 in the world, are in Group A at the Gulf Cup alongside Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar, while Group B features Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Ahmad Al Habsi said both groups were equally tough but was optimistic about the team’s chances.
“The Gulf Cup is always a tough competition but, Inshallah, we will do well.”
The Red Warriors’ French coach Paul Le Guen, addressing media at a pre-departure press conference, said they were prepared to play without their star custodian. “We knew it would be difficult for Ali to come,” he said. “I anticipated this problem.”
The coach included two goalkeepers, Mazen Al Kasbi and Fayeez Al Rashaidi, for the West Asia Football Championship in Kuwait last December. “I am impressed with their performances and I told them we will be relying on their services.” Le Guen said.
The team will now depend a lot on veteran midfielder Ahmad Mubarak “Kanu”, who plays for Al Ettifaq in Saudi Arabia, and another Saudi league star, striker Emmad Al Hosni (Al Ahli), to deliver for the team. UAE club Al Dhafra’s Fauzi Bashir is tipped to get the captain’s band in the absence of Habsi.
Le Guen was upbeat about Oman’s chances following their recent performances.
“I am confident these players will give their best. If we play as well as we did against Japan [2-1 loss in a November World Cup qualifier] and Togo [1-0 defeat in a friendly], I think we can begin with a desirable result against Bahrain,” the French coach said.
The OFA chairman has promised handsome bonuses if Oman win the Gulf Cup so now the ball is in the Red Warriors’ court to reclaim the title they won at home in 2009.