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 Left-back Abdallah Jaber’s arm was retracted when it blocked Mohammed Fawzi’s cross, but referee Benjamin Williams still pointed to the spot.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.