Amman’s undulating hills and the chaotic, labyrinthlike streets they lead onto provide a fascinating background for a date with destiny, nearly a decade in the making for the UAE’s cherished ‘Golden Generation’.
A day that promises nerve jangling excitement, tribal passion and pained impatience awaits as nations spanning the breadth of Asia learn whether they had been fated to make next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
The rolling geography of this Middle Eastern outpost provides a fitting backdrop to a tumultuous campaign for the Whites.
From the enthusiasm of third place at the 2015 Asian Cup which slowly ebbed away throughout a trying opening stage. To the troubling acceptance paternal coach Mahdi Ali could take them no further and the burst of enthusiasm delivered by last week’s authoritative 2-1 victory against footballing overlords Saudi Arabia, which means their neighbours remain, somehow, in the mix for a second ever appearance at the World Cup.
The odds are stacked against troops becoming increasing battle hardened under new man Edgardo Bauza. A walloping victory alone against revitalised Iraq – forced to play their home games at neutral venues because of civil war – at the dilapidated Amman International Stadium will not be enough to gate crash the hallowed top three in Group B.
Not unless this is allied with surprising, and substantial, losses for the Saudis or Australia – nations for whom a deeper relationship has been forged with the World Cup finals.
Yet it is the feeling that the UAE’s brush with entering the tournament is fleeting which makes Tuesday’s outcome ever more precious.
Sheer weight of numbers ensure a country which counts its indigenous population at approximately 1.4 million will struggle to consistently make global events. Talents have shone since the cherished crop of Adnan Al Talyani, Ali Thani and Fahad Khamees ran-out at Italia ’90. These include the ceaseless Subait Khater and gifted Ismail Matar, a returnee to the starting line-up in this international break.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) September 4, 2017
There have been further highlights on home soil, when making the 1996 Asian Cup final and winning the Matar-inspired 2007 Gulf Cup. But when will another crop emerge which has produced the last two AFC Players of the Year in Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman, plus the 2015 Asian Cup top scorer in Ali Mabkhout?
Never mind Khamis Esmail, Ismail Al Hammadi and the rest of a fine supporting cast.
This ominous question hangs over the impending action. Even when accounting for FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s expansionist plans in the next decade.
A final push must occur, no matter Khalil is the only big hitter who’ll take to the pitch because of suspensions and injuries.
Forget the allure of the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE. For a group which first emerged with victory in 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship, played in the London 2012 Olympics and claimed the 2013 Gulf Cup, this was always the true prize.
Ignore the unfavourable standings in Group B. Their true legacy will rest on this outcome.
AMMAN// Undiminished UAE coach Edgardo Bauza has “great confidence” his adopted nation can perform a miracle against Iraq on Tuesday and sneak into World Cup 2018, despite a plethora of big-name absentees.
The Whites have headed to Jordan bursting with enthusiasm after last week’s do-or-die 2-1 win against Saudi Arabia kept their push for next summer’s tournament, just about, alive into the last game of the third-and-final round. To stand any chance of infiltrating the top three, they must now thrash eliminated opponents, hope the Saudis and/or Australia are defeated in their engagements, plus pull off a gargantuan swing of at least six in goal difference.
This Herculean task has been stiffened by the unavailability through injury or suspension of key men such as 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, Arabian Gulf League top scorer Ali Mabkhout and influential holding midfielder Khamis Esmail. But for the sanguine Bauza, for whom June’s debut 1-1 draw in Thailand appears increasingly costly, he was convinced a second-ever entry is still eminently possible.
“We know very well the importance of the game and the need to win it, despite the many absences in the team,” said the 59-year-old, who was dismissed by his native Argentine in April after eight miserable matches. “Such cases undoubtedly impact any team in our circumstances, but I have great confidence.
“I wanted to play with the same squad we played Saudi Arabia, but I say that the team has 27 players who are all qualified to play and represent the country. I hope that the team and its players will make it their day and we will succeed in winning the three points.
“Iraq are a strong team that includes players who combine experience and youth. They depend on their physical side and long balls.
“Through watching videos of them technically, we will work well to combat the team during the game in order to win.”
For the Lions of Mesopotamia, who were beaten 2-0 in Abu Dhabi under Mahdi Ali last November, they have been cast as wrecking balls for their opponents’ hopes at Amman International Stadium.
Since the summer arrival of coach Basim Qasim – who was part of the Iraq team who epically denied UAE a berth at World Cup 1986 – a marked improvement has been witnessed. A 1-1 draw was recorded against Group B-leaders Japan on his competitive debut and they beat Thailand 2-1 last Tuesday.
Columbus Crew forward Justin Meram struck in the latter match and he promised his country would be no walkovers.
“This match is going to be a difficult one, said the 28-year-old, who was born in the United States. “The UAE are a quality team with quality players, we must be prepared for that.
“We must defend very well and will give our all for our country.”
Elsewhere in the pool, the UAE will hope Japan will rouse themselves to beat the Saudis in Jeddah even though a sixth-successive finals place has been earned and the bottom-placed Thais can stun the Socceroos in Melbourne.
A top-two finish guarantees qualification, while the third-placed sides from each group will meet next month to earn a spot in November’s inter-confederation play-off versus a CONCACAF side.
The UAE squad landed in Jordan on Sunday amid the continuing absence of star player Omar Abdulrahman, as preparations for their free-scoring mission to make World Cup 2018 kicked up another gear.
The Whites will play Iraq on Tuesday when the third-and-final-qualifying round reaches its crescendo. Their essential 2-1 win against high-flying Saudi Arabia last week – gained without the injured 2016 AFC Player of the Year – means they remain, just, in the hunt for a second-ever participation.
Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza drilled his troops in the evening at Amman International Stadium knowing they must thrash eliminated opponents, hope Australia and/or the Saudis lose, plus elicit swings of either six or eight in goal difference if they are to gate crash Group B’s top three.
A 24-player party made the three-hour flight to the capital. Confirmation of the expected news that ‘Amoory’ would remain in Barcelona and recuperate from an ankle problem was provided before departure, but his brother Khaled – a left-back for Al Ain – made the journey as replacement for the banned Mahmoud Khamis of Al Nasr.
Suspensions have also hit influential Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club anchorman Khamis Esmail and prolific Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout – who produced a memorable leveller last week in Al Ain for his 35th goal from 52 internationals.
The Under-23 ranks have been raided for promising substitutes Mohammed Abdulbasit of Al Wahda and Ahmed Al Attas of Jazira.
The UAE’s unlikely bid to make next summer’s tournament in Russia will hinge on whether the third-placed Socceroos can be upset by bottom-placed Thailand in Melbourne or if Japan’s success last Thursday in securing a sixth-successive finals berth will quell their desire to defeat second-placed Saudi in Jeddah.