Paul Dunne falters on day two of the Dubai Desert Classic

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McIlroy, who finished his second round in the morning, surprisingly struggled for the first time in seven rounds into his comeback from a three-month layoff, and was 1-over par at the turn in the third round.

"I just wanted to play by myself and play my game".

The four-time major champion then recovered with five birdies on the back nine for a 4-under 68 and 19 under overall that put him one behind Li.

So too, no doubt, will Frenchman Alexander Levy and South African Haydn Porteous.

The Northern Irishman made his return from a hip injury at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last week, where he placed joint-third.

Englishman Danny Willett endured a hard opening day as he dropped three shots on the eighth and another four on the ninth to finish five-over at the bottom of the leaderboard. "The quality of the golf was much better, which I was happy with, and to come back in five-under is very nice".

Given he was out in the afternoon's last group with McIlroy and Welshman Jamie Donaldson, it was an extremely impressive showing.

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After getting to 12-under, Scott Jamieson finished bogey-double bogey to sit alongside Richie Ramsay, with two-time victor Stephen Gallacher two shots behind his compatriots on six-under.

"Hopefully I can do my best out there and have some low scores".

"The back nine's been good to me this week", said the four-time major victor.

"I feel like if I play my game I'll be able to shoot something a bit lower tomorrow and I feel like I will need something a bit lower to win", McIlroy told Sky Sports after his third round.

Round of the day went to Andy Sullivan, the Englishman surging up the leaderboard with a 63, leaving him on -16, four adrift of Li but Donaldson's challenge faltered with a three-over 75. "This is a place I've always done well at hopefully that experience of winning a couple of times around here and being in contention quite a lot will help". "So just stayed patient all day".

"I'm looking forward to it", McIlroy said.