The Northern Irishman goes into the final round one shot behind overnight leader Li Haotong after a 68 on Saturday, McIlroy holding second place on -19 after 54 holes.
Rory McIlroy surged to the top of the Dubai Desert Classic leaderboard as he completed his delayed second round with a series of birdies.
France's Alex Levy and Haydn Porteous of South Africa are another shot back in third place.
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Fellow Englishman Tyrrell Hatton birdied the first four holes and eagled the last for a 66 to share sixth, five off the lead. Three strokes behind McIlroy after two rounds, Li played much the better as the field continued to play catch up after the three-hour fog delay on Thursday morning.
"The back nine's been good to me this week". In contrast, McIlroy, after playing the last seven holes of his second round in five under par to move atop the leader board, was uncharacteristically sloppy, at least on the front-nine he played in one over par.
"I just wanted to play by myself and play my game", he said. "I knew what was on the cards out there and I think I had five holes to go when I started thinking about 59". Three more followed in the space of four holes from the turn and he finished with another at the last.
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He also said he had been well treated in detention, describing rumours of mistreatment as false. However, officials say they are ensuring UK-manufactured weapons are used appropriately.
But Li, the world number 60, who won the 2016 China Open and made headlines in June when he threw his putter in a lake at the French Open only for it to be fished out by his mother, took the outright lead at the eighth with a birdie from eight feet, his fourth of the day. "I've never been in this position but I'm happy to see my game in this shape".
With hardly any wind at Emirates Golf Club, a slew of low scores were produced, none better than the 42-year-old Donaldson who has a one-shot lead over English duo David Horsey and Anthony Wall.
Despite that, the Frenchman still signed for a 65 after a birdie on the 18th. But it was McIlroy at his best as he eagled the 10th after two majestic blows, with three birdies in the final six holes also contributing to a pleasing day at the coalface.
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Li, who finished an impressive third at The Open past year, sits on top of the leaderboard with a one-stroke lead over McIlroy.