A grateful nation in need requires one last act of stellar service from Ismail Matar.
In the absence of waylaid 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, the timeless 117-cap veteran stepped into a void few of the faithful at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium believed could be filled during Tuesday’s night critical World Cup 2018 qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
Defeat in just his second start of this lengthy campaign would have ended the dreams of the ‘Golden Generation’ he inspired, more than anyone else. Instead, and in typical fashion, the 34-year-old living legend orchestrated a clutch 2-1 triumph as playmaker which means another miracle act awaits in next week’s rousing third-and-final-round finale against eliminated Iraq.
A heavy win allied with a sizeable slice of good fortune will send the Whites on their way into next summer’s tournament in Russia.
With unstoppable Al Jazira front man Ali Mabkhout now joining the esteemed ‘Amoory’ on the sidelines for the defining Group B-clash in Amman, Matar’s role is to be amplified even further.
At an age when most footballers have just the comfort of club football to keep them busy, injuries and suspensions which have decimated the UAE’s ‘big three’ ensure the hero of the historic 2007 Gulf Cup-success on home soil is the main man once again – and after all these years.
Eyebrows were raised in Al Ain an hour before kick-off when the expected news of Abdulrahman’s absence was joined by the unexpected choice from Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza in his second math at the helm to plump for Matar as his replacement. The hands of time and rise of the ‘Golden Generation’ had made Matar an increasingly-peripheral presence.
Any dissenting – and ungrateful – voices were soon silenced as the Al Wahda icon slotted seamlessly into a new 4-3-1-2 formation which, belatedly, delivered a display of refined calibration.
The player who first shone when winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship was central to this success.
Unnerving accuracy and incisive vision was on show throughout his sterling 77 minute on the pitch. Whether unleashing striker Ahmed Khalil’s pace on the break with long balls or linking up with the likes of rampaging Al Nasr tyro Tariq Ahmed in close quarters, the Saudis could not quell him.
His success while opposing attacking stalwart Taisir Al Jassim fruitlessly toiled was a key component of this success.
In Jordan, Matar will need to engineer a minimum swing of eight in goal difference for his country to stand any chance of advancement. But on this evidence, his powers to produce footballing drama remain intact.
In the Pantheon of UAE football greats, he is rivalled only by World Cup 1990 stars Khalid Ismail, Ali Thani and Adnan Al Talyani.
Provide the bullets on Tuesday for 16-goal joint-global top scorer Khalil and one of Middle East football’s finest careers will bequeath a priceless, potential, parting gift.
Al Wahda defender Ahmed Rashid and winger Suhail Al Noubi of relegated Bani Yas were the only new faces selected on Monday by UAE coach Edgardo Bauza for a predictable 30-man squad, which faces a mission impossible in the imminent finale to World Cup 2018 qualifying.
The Whites critically sit fourth in Group B for the third-and-final stage, six points and one place outside the progression spots. They must hammer third-place Saudi Arabia in Al Ain on August 29 and eliminated Iraq in Amman, Jordan on September 5 to hold a slim chance of contesting for the inter-confederation play-off, on goal difference.
Despite the parlous situation caused by June 13’s 1-1 draw on debut in Thailand, the recently-dismissed Argentina coach has resisted calls to widely raid the youth ranks.
Rashid, 20, and Al Noubi, 21, both impressed when the junior Whites last month failed to make the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship. But Al Jazira forward Ahmed Al Attas, 21, was overlooked despite then scoring three goals in three games.
Another surprise absentee from the Pride of Abu Dhabi was electric playmaker Khalfan Mubarak. The 22-year-old was an unused substitute in Bangkok under El Paton.
Al Ain’s players have been excused from meeting up with the rest of the squad on Friday in the Garden City because of Monday’s 2017 AFC Champions League quarter-final, first leg against Riyadh giants Al Hilal.
Khalid Essa, Mohammed Ahmed, Ismail Ahmed, Mohaned Salem, Ahmed Barman, Omar Abdulrahman, Mohamed Abdulrahman (Al Ain); Suhail Al Noubi (Bani Yas); Ali Khaseif, Mohammed Fawzi, Fares Juma, Ahmed Khalil, Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira); Ahmed Shambieh, Mahmoud Khamis, Tariq Ahmed, Salem Saleh (Al Nasr); Majed Nasser, Abdulaziz Haikal, Mohammed Marzouq, Walid Abbas, Abdulaziz Sanqour, Khamis Esmail, Hassan Ibrahim, Habib Fardan (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club); Ahmed Rashid, Tariq Ahmed, Khaled Bawazir, Mohamed Al Akbari, Ismail Matar (Al Wahda)
World Cup 2018 qualifiers
20:30 UAE v Saudi Arabia
16:10 Iraq v UAE
UAE coach Edgardo Bauza’s fact-finding European tour for potential call-ups ahead of World Cup 2018’s qualifying finale has made its first stops at Arabian Gulf League-champions Al Jazira and beaten President’s Cup-finalists Al Nasr.
Bauza, 59, left the Emirates on Tuesday for a whirlwind mission as he seeks to deepen knowledge of a group of players he has only competitively led in June 13’s damaging 1-1 draw in Thailand.
The ex-Argentina tactician – who signed a one-and-a-half-year deal in May – landed in the Netherlands, where he immediately saw prolific marksman Ahmed Khalil score twice in the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s 3-2 friendly win against third-tier De Treffers.
A flight to Hungary followed for Wednesday’s 2-1 loss for the Blue Wave against the reserves of Slovakia’s Fortuna Liga holders MSK Zilina. The trip concludes on Friday when he returns to his country of entry for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s meeting with Eerste Divisie’s FC Eindhoven.
The UAE finish their Group B-commitments in the third round at home to Saudi Arabia (August 28) and against Iraq (September 5) in Iran or Jordan. They must win both clashes and hope for an improbable swing in goal difference to advance.
The Whites currently sit fourth, six points behind a potential inter-confederation play-off slot.
With hopes of securing the nation’s second-ever finals berth incredibly slim, attention switches to December’s Gulf Cup and January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil.
Bauza has vowed to promote several players from the youth ranks. A recall for Jazira forward Ahmed Al Attas is likely to head this drive.
Bauza’s selection will gather on August 18. Al Ain’s opening 2017 AFC Champions League quarter-final against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal on August 21 means those players will meet up in their home city at a later date.