Qualification to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup has only strengthened the UAE’s desire to become champions of Asia, according to jubilant skipper Walid Mohammad.
New head coach Mohamed Abbas’ men prevailed 2-1 on penalties following a rollercoaster 4-4 draw against Lebanon in Friday’s AFC Beach Soccer Championship’s semi-finals. This result secured a fifth participation in the global tournament – to be held in the Bahamas from April 27-May 7 – after the nation missed out in 2015 and teed up a final with regional rivals Iran on Saturday, as they chase a third continental crown.
The victory continued a remarkable transformation for the Whites, who finished second-bottom in November’s Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup on home soil.
“I told my players: ‘we have a dream to go to the World Cup, but we have a target to be a champion’,” said the versatile 32-year-old captain. “We came here to get back to being the champion of Asia, not just to make the World Cup.
“We had a difficult group, Japan are one of the world’s strongest teams. In the semis versus Lebanon, we again showed our personality.”
The UAE had topped Group C in Malaysia thanks to a fine 5-4 win against ninth-ranked Japan on Wednesday. Their reward was a clash against Lebanon, in which victory was required to guarantee one of three World Cup spots.
Goals from Ahmed Beshr, Haitham Mohamed and Ali Mohammad gave them a 3-1 lead in the last-four tie, only for Mohamad Merhi‘s brace to help the Cedars go 4-3 ahead. Ali Mohammad then responded with a bouncing penalty to secure extra-time.
Haitham Fattal and Moustafa Al Zein both faltered for Lebanon in the subsequent shootout, while Mohamed and Hasham Muntaser registered to help the UAE to a memorable success.
“It was a tough game for us,” said Walid Mohammad, who made his international debut in 2011.
“I trusted my players and we had no other option but to win. This was a dream of a country, not just a dream of the players.”
Ex-UAE star Abbas took the reins in the aftermath of the Dubai debacle, as Guga’s two-year spell was brought to an end. Walid Mohammad praised the decision to pick an Emirati replacement.
He said: “When somebody was a player and then becomes coach, it makes a big difference. A new coach would need to know the details, but we didn’t have time – it was a great decision to keep a local coach.”
Iran beat Japan 8-6 in the other semi. Their fifth-placed world ranking is 14 higher than the UAE’s.
Lebanon fought back from 3-1 down to lead 4-3 thanks partly to a Mohamad Merhi brace, but, after the UAE recovered to force extra time and penalties, the skipper was the only one to register for the men in red.
Haitham Fattal and Moustafa Al Zein both faltered while Haitham Mohamed and Hasham Muntaser registered for the UAE to book themselves a place in Saturday’s final and the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in the Bahamas.
Amid a scrappy start from both sides, a foul by Mahmoud Matar on Ahmed Beshr allowed the UAE man to tuck home the opener from the spot although the advantage was shortlived as Ahmed Grada levelled shortly after.
With the game having opened up, chances began to flow prior to the interval but the scoreline remained finely poised throughout a captivating second frame.
An impressive sidefoot finish from Haitham Mohamed into the top corner sent momentum back the way of UAE with the men in white finishing the period on top - Mohamed Choker required to pull off a string of smart saves to keep Lebanon within one goal of parity.
Fallen Al Ahli striker Asamoah Gyan has vowed persistent injury problems will not get the better of him.
Gyan, 31, has started just six of the champions’ 14 Arabian Gulf League games he was eligible for in 2016/17. This has continued a theme from his time at Shanghai SIPG, from where he was granted a season-long loan exit last summer after fitness troubles bedeviled the man who scored a legendary 128 goals in 123 matches for Al Ain from 2011-15.
Speaking after a twisted ankle restricted him to a second-half substitute’s role in Saturday’s enlivening 2-1 triumph against pacesetters Al Jazira, the Ghana captain
insisted he still possesses the physical prowess to play his way back into his best form.
“I’ve been in a very difficult situation in the past nine months, but I’m still trying to make sure I get back to my normal fitness,” said Gyan, who has scored a disappointing six times in 15 games for his temporary employers.
“Definitely, I’m going to get it. I don’t predict, but I believe I’m going to get there.
“When I’m on the pitch, I know what I can do.
“The most important thing is to stay fit – that is what I’m praying for every time.”
Africa’s record goal scorer at World Cups has endured yet another disrupted campaign. He was signed after Ahli had conducted the majority of their pre-season training, while Ghana’s run to the Africa Cup of Nations’ semi-finals saw him stay away from Dubai for nearly two months in mid-season.
In-between, he has struggled to avoid the treatment table. His latest ailment forced him off the pitch after 25 minutes of last week’s 2-0 defeat at Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in the 2017 AFC Champions League’s group stages.
These repeat issues have seen questions asked about his continued viability for club and country.
“It happens,” Gyan says about the criticism. “Sometimes when things go wrong, people will talk, when things go right people will talk.
“I’ve been in this game for almost 15 years, so I know how it works.
“I’m trying to fight with myself because I know what a fit Asamoah Gyan can do on the pitch.”
The Red Knights’ weekend win – earned when Gyan’s mis-hit shot fell to Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro – saw them close to six point on Jazira, in second place. With six games left, plus their continental commitments, Gyan was hoping for a big end to the season.
He said: “Definitely, because I have two and a half months to go. I’m just praying to God that I can stay fit.”