A new hero is on the ascent for the UAE.
Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman was the man his nation always looked towards in times of need. If not him, it was 29-goal Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout.
Inspiration was required against Palestine after a trying start during the first of a must-win World Cup 2018-qualifying double raised the tension inside a fevered Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. As is now the norm, Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil provided respite in a vital 2-0 triumph.
In the absence of strike partner Mabkhout through injury, he ruthlessly exploited a defensive slip to spark Al Ahli club-mate Ismail Al Hammadi’s soothing opener.
He then exhibited the poise expected of the reigning AFC Asian Player of the Year, stylishly chipping home a second-half penalty to perfectly tee up Tuesday’s showdown against Group A-leaders Saudi Arabia.
Victory is a must on home soil against their powerful neighbours to make the third round and continue chasing the dream of a second-ever entry into the globe’s premier sporting event. Years of progress for the London 2012 Olympians, 2013 Gulf Cup winners and third-placed 2015 Asian Cup finishers is on the line.
This was not a perfect display by any means against a nation who needed victory to keep alive slim hopes of progression and who had defensive midfielder Mohammed Darwish dismissed for two yellow cards.
A lack of fluidity detailed the opening half, while Mabkhout stand-in Ahmed Ali was appallingly wasteful before his removal for the surprisingly-snubbed Mohammed Abdulrahman.
Dominant Al Ain centre-back Ismail Ahmed was also required to be alert to snub out danger from losses of possession close to goal. Coach Mahdi Ali must ponder solutions to these problems in the coming days.
Only flashed efforts from Khalil threatened during a fractured start for both sides. The opener on 32 minutes lifted the standard.
Khalil preyed on a weak header from visiting skipper Abdallatif Albahdari, a one-two with Al Hammadi leading the winger to volley home from close range.
The hosts improved after the break, though the award of a spot-kick to feel safe was a harsh one. Left-back Abdallah Jaber’s arm was retracted when it blocked Mohammed Fawzi’s cross, but referee Benjamin Williams still pointed to the spot.
Khalil then calmly produced a 60th-minute ‘panenka’ Omar Abdulrahman would have been proud of to make the game safe.
A spoiling show from UAE substitute Habib Fardan and Bani Yas midfielder Amer Abdulrahman then helped count the clock down on a crucial victory. This bid was further aided by Darwish’s naive swipe at the excellent Mohamed Abdulrahman, robbing the Lions of Canaan of a man.
The stage has been set for a ‘golden generation’ to deliver.
Fired-up boss Mahdi Ali has declared the UAE “must play with our hearts” to stay on track for World Cup 2018 qualification, beginning with Thursday night’s must-win clash against Palestine.
The Whites face a decisive double header in the next five days as the second round in the AFC process ends with a pair of matches at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
The hosts are sandwiched between both opponents in Group A, with Palestine third and Saudi Arabia leading. Victory in the two games are almost certainly required to progress to the next stage and Ali, 50, was keen to emphasise this message.
He said: “We know we have a very important game (against Palestine) and we know it will be very tough. We know we don’t have any option, we have to win this game and keep our chances to qualify to the final round.
“We have to play with our hearts and be patient to get what we want. No matter which players play, we’re playing for the UAE flag and will fight to the final whistle.”
Only the eight AFC pool winners are guaranteed to make the third round, with a cumulative-results formula deciding the four-best run- ners-up to join them. Table-toppers Saudi Arabia are three points and three goals ahead of the UAE.
They face whipping boys Malaysia today as good as guaranteeing first place will be out of the host’s reach before Tuesday’s meeting in Abu Dhabi as goal difference determines a tiebreak. This means they must beat Palestine and get themselves in the best-possible position to go through as one of the four best runners-up.
When the two nations last met in September, a drab goalless draw was played out in Al Ram on a historic day as the UAE became the first Arabic nation to play a qualifier on the West Bank. The Lions of Canaan proved dogged opponents, restricting their challengers to a series of pot shots.
The Whites’ hope of making the breakthrough this time have been affected by leading marksman Ali Mabkhout’s hamstring injury.
The 29-goal international was given a “very low” chance of featuring today by Ali, although a fitness problem for Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman is not expected to keep him out. The squad had also previously lost Al Jazira goalkeeper Ali Khaseif and Al Wahda prospect Mohamed Al Akbari.
“We are very confident that our team is ready for this game, regardless of all the injuries we have,” Ali insisted. “Any 11 players in the squad, they are able to do their best and to win this game.”
Palestine qualified for the 2015 Asian Cup and have avoided defeat in their last five Group A fixtures.
Skipper Abdelatif Bahdari was confident about a positive result, despite acknowledging the fearsome talent in the opposition ranks.
He said: “We know that the UAE have a very good team. The best two players now in Asia are Omar Abdulrahman and (2015 AFC Player of the Year) Ahmed Khalil.
“It’s a very important match and we came here to play with our motivation to win. This is very important for the nation of Palestine.”
The UAE’s build-up took a sad turn at the weekend when technical assistant coach Lars Gansauer died of a heart attack during training. Ali made sure to pay tribute to his long-serving colleague on Wednesday.
He said: “We are very sorry for his family, we lost a very good person. We had a very good relationship with him and are very sorry.”
The UAE’s current batch of players are rightly heralded as a ‘golden generation’.
Impressive displays at the London 2012 Olympics, 2013 Gulf Cup and 2015 Asian Cup are testament to the rarified talents in coach Mahdi Ali’s possession.
Yet some players are more priceless than others.
We are about to find out the value of 29-goal Ali Mabkhout as the first stage on the long road to 2018 World Cup winds up without him in Thursday night’s clash against Palestine and in all likelihood Tuesday’s decider against Saudi Arabia.
For this squad to fulfil their destiny, a hero may be required in these must-win clashes to fill the void caused by a hamstring complaint.
The time has come for history-making Ahmed Khalil to show why he was awarded the 2015 AFC Asian Player of the Year crown.
Debate about the UAE tends to always gravitate towards Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman. His standout frizzy hair and even-more-eye-catching technique make him an obvious focal point.
Forward Khalil has also shown a propensity to steal the limelight. Key strikes during Al Ahli’s run to the 2015 AFC Champions League final and the Whites’ progression to third at the last Asian Cup saw him become the first Emirati to be crowned the continent’s finest.
But even in the presence of such celebrated stars, the nation usually requires Mabkhout to shine brightest.
The 25-year-old’s lethality brings the creative talents of Omar, Ismail Al Hammadi and Amer Abdulrahman to life. He is by a distance the highest-scoring Emirati in the 2015-16 Arabian Gulf League despite Al Jazira’s travails, his 16-goal tally being 10 more than Emirates Club’s Mohammad Malalla and Khalil.
He has now hit double figures in three of the last four top-flight campaigns. This consistency stands him apart from Khalil, who has done it just once in 2009-10.
The latter-mentioned has the edge in this qualification process. A 10-goal haul – boosted by two incredible four-goal performances against Malaysia and Timor-Leste – is double that registered by Makbhout.
Even still, Mabkhout is the figure the rest of the continent’s heavyweights fear most. His mixture of pace, size, skill and killer instinct would have been ideal to pile the pressure on Palestine.
Mabkhout’s characteristics would have been perfect to force the agenda against Abdel Nasser Barakat’s visitors. They are sure to repeat their dour tactics from the goalless reverse fixture last September.
For much of the running in Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, 10 men will be behind the ball as the visitors look to steal a result.
Forward support for Khalil tonight will not be up to the usual standard when Mabkhout is around. Stand-ins Salem Saleh and Ahmed Ali got doubles against minnows Bangladesh last Friday, though this was not a representative warm-up.
Ali will dread to think what to do if his top gun also misses the showdown with the Saudis. Failure then will bring years of remarkable progress to a shuddering halt.
The striking burden looks like it is Khalil’s to bear for the immediate future, while Mabkhout gingerly goes through training.
This is a mental challenge for him, rather than a question of ability. Much will be learned about one of the standout characters in Ali’s squad.