Even when he was not hitting it close, his short game saved him on a couple of occasions, including a good up-and-down on the 14th hole.
McIlroy was also impressed with how Li went about his game. More recently, he closed with a 63 at Royal Birkdale to finish third behind Jordan Spieth in last year's Open Championship.
"I'll probably need to play a bit better tomorrow to win, but you know, it's two weeks into the season and I've given myself a second chance to win a tournament".
Welshman Donaldson nearly lost his European Tour card last season, before a fourth-placed finish at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters spared him that misfortune.
Fog had ended the second day early but McIlroy was on fire when he returned to finish the final seven holes early this morning.
Two bogeys on the front nine took him to the turn in 36 but an eagle and three birdies coming home kept him firmly in contention. Unlike his first round though, Wallace maintained his forward momentum and went "out" in a five-under-par score of 32 after a birdie three on 17 and another four on a par five at 18.
McIlroy sizzling in late levels of 2nd spherical to take Dubai lead
Tyrrel Hatton is in outright fourth, while McIlroy is just three strokes off the pace as one of a clutch of five players in a tie for fifth. "So I just stayed patient all day".
"This is one of my favourite tournaments of the year, a place I've always done well at, some good memories". "Now I have to do it again tomorrow and try to win the event".
Alexander Levy and Haydn Porteous sit a further two back after 65s on Saturday, the former briefly flirting with the top of the leaderboard when he aced the par-three fourth - the second hole-in-one of the week.
He has eagled the 10th hole and is two shots off the lead.
Turkish Airlines flies 5 times a week from Edinburgh to Dubai via Istanbul starting from £350 including taxes and golf clubs fly for free in addition to a 40kg baggage allowance as standard (50kg in business).More news: Turkey says US ought to "cease supporting terrorists" to…