This was a night of intense pain for the UAE. Their Gulf Cup crown wrestled away moments after an uplifting comeback had been secured, their Asian Cup hopes in doubt following injury to Omar Abdulrahman.
Ahmed Khalil had appeared to be the most unlikely of heroes, his second-half brace securing parity, that painfully, was not to last.
Mahdi Ali’s men were culpable in defeat to hosts Saudi Arabia. For the second time in less than a week, a brace of quick-fire goals were sloppily conceded.
Those efforts from Nasser Al Shamrani and Nawaf Al Abid gave Saudi Arabia a 2-0 half-time lead.
Khalil’s double provided the allure of added time. This was all too quickly wrestled away. Salem Al Dawsari danced around the edge of the box and fired in with four minutes to play to secure a 3-2 win for the Green Falcons.
The absence of injured playmaker Omar Abdulrahman from much of the action was worrying. The injury problems which have severely disrupted his domestic campaign re-appeared as he hobbled off in clear discomfort on 26 minutes.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) November 23, 2014
Any further damage to his knee could see him miss January’s defining assignment in Australia.
Against Kuwait in the group stage, the UAE were already two goals to the good when calamity struck. No such luxury was available at a disappointingly half-full King Fahd International Stadium.
Saudi Arabia have been questioned at every turn on home soil, coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro the main target of ire. Redemption is now close at hand for the Spaniard following last night’s heart-racing 3-2 win, his team fired up by the criticism received.
On the evidence at hand, Wednesday’s opponents Qatar should provide little threat. A first Gulf Cup title in 11 years is close.
The grey Riyadh skies provided poor omen yesterday, a thunderous afternoon downpour greeting many of the travelling Emirati supporters.
Their mood was hardly lifted by a disastrous opening half an hour. Khalil first provided frustration by not reacting to a chipped Omar Abdulrahman ball to the back post.
This pain was increased when right-back Saeed Al Mowallad was given the freedom of their half to cross, the predatory Nasser Al Shamrani ghosting behind Mohamed Ahmed to convert.
A lack of UAE pressure defined this critical spell. The punishment was doubled three minutes later.
Right-back Abdelaziz Sanqour dawdled upon a bouncing ball, Al Shamrani sticking out a leg to play in winger Al Abid to crash in a low strike from 12 yards.
The UAE seemed defeated foes. They then exhibited the fight of champions to get themselves back into a helter-skelter contest.
Amer Abdulrahman curled a deep free-kick on 53 minutes which was flicked in artfully by Khalil for his first goal of the tournament.
The Al Ahli man’s place had been questioned in Saudi; he had looked a pale resemblance of the man who was top scorer on the way to the title in 2013.
He excelled with just more than 10 minutes to play, controlling expertly and slotting home following an Ismail Matar cross.
There appeared to be only winner from that point, the Whites with momentum on their side. This did not countenance the ever-increasing Saudi spirit.
Too little pressure was applied to attacking midfielder Al Dawsari on the edge of the box. Two challenges skipped, he fired in low.
The King Fahd erupted. There was to be no more fight backs from there.
The UAE will be taking on an entire nation tonight when the fight for a Gulf Cup final spot begins against hosts Saudi Arabia.
A huge test is being billed for the Whites versus opponents that have improved steadily under coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro and boast the imposing King Fahd International Stadium as their fortress. But the feeling cannot be dismissed that it will be Green Falcons running the gauntlet, rather than the holders.
Experience football in the Kingdom and you cannot fail to miss the all-consuming effect it has on its people and media. Passions run high in a country that takes the sport so very seriously.
A chorus of car horns greet celebrated victories, scores risking their lives by hanging out of windows to wave the national flag as they race through the bumpy Riyadh roadways at high speed.
Each press conference is an interrogation, the highest standards demanded for a nation that is both the Arabian Gulf’s most populous and successful in international competition.
Intense debates between 10-man panels run late into the night, Khaleej 22 and the hopes of the hosts the hottest topic of conversation.
The minutia of every choice made by Lopez Caro is analysed, to often heated effect. Rather unfairly, the ex-Real Madrid boss has long-since extinguished the credit earned by an all-conquering Asian Cup qualification campaign.
Critics’ barbs dominate each increasingly-tetchy media event, only the sight of veteran captain Saud Kariri lifting the trophy on Wednesday evening will grant acceptance.
This sense of expectation is all too palpable inside the King Fahd.
Certainly, the Spaniard was left under no illusions during an awful second half of the tournament opener that saw dreary Qatar claim a 1-1 draw. Whistles echoed around the stadium at full-time, the disappointment extending to the second Group A game against Bahrain when barely half a stadium’s worth of supporters turned out.
Perform well and partisan encouragement is guaranteed, though when things go wrong there is nowhere to hide.
UAE coach Mahdi Ali was quizzed about the power of the King Fahd crowd after progression to the last-four was secured by Thursday’s 2-0 win against Iraq.
Journalists expecting to receive a deferential answer were left disappointed when he countered that a full stadium could in fact help his team.
An early goal from the UAE tonight will turn the atmosphere mutinous. Get on the front foot, and a collapse of morale should be enforced.
The UAE have been far too supine thus far in Saudi Arabia, with one noticeable exception. For the first 30 minutes against Kuwait, the side that thrilled in Bahrain during the previous Gulf Cup reappeared in technicolour.
Omar Abdulrahman looked every inch the superstar, Amer Abdulrahman was omnipresent while Ali Mabkhout finished two chances with aplomb. The vibrancy died off as Kuwait fought back to 2-2 and was missing entirely during the often-interminable triumph against Iraq.
Rediscover the verve of the opening skirmishes from the Kuwait clash and Saudi Arabia will feel the pressure of an entire nation crashing down on them.
Oman coach Paul Le Guen has played down the influence of facing a former Paris Saint-Germain team-mate when his side battle Qatar for a Gulf Cup final place.
The Red Warriors pulled off one of the most stunning results in the competition’s history to make the last four, substitute Salim Said’s 15-minute hat-trick helping to thrash Group B leaders Kuwait 5-0.
Reward for that emphatic win comes tonight against Djamel Belmadi’s outfit. The two bosses were briefly together with PSG during the 1995-96 season, Le Guen a lauded France international centre-back while Belmadi was a young midfielder trying to force his way into the first team.
Despite this shared bond, the former declared this would make little difference during the clash at King Fahd International Stadium.
“I know him very well, we shared some good moments at PSG,” Le Guen said. “It is always a pleasure to meet him. It is not because I know him that I will know his tactics, it is totally different.”
Le Guen was quick to play down the euphoria gained against Kuwait, insisting Oman’s focus remained sharp.
The ex-Lyon and Glasgow Rangers boss said: “We are very proud to reach the semi-final, we are very ambitious and want to go further.
“We have stayed very calm, we celebrated it after game. But I am not a newcomer in football, the most difficult thing is to confirm.
“We won’t win 5-0, we know that. Only aim is to qualify. We are not lucky to play Qatar, we know their quality. I respect a lot Djamel and his players – we are not lucky.
“They had a very good game against Saudi in the opening game.”
Group A runners-up Qatar come into the match following a dull run to the knockout phases, a side minus attacking stars Khalfan Ibrahim and Sebastian Soria scoring one goal on their way to three successive draws. An added problem could come in the fact that illness forced Belmadi to miss yesterday’s pre-match press conference.
Assistant boss Serge Romano stepped into his superior’s boots, declaring Qatar’s youthful players will continue to improve with experience during the competition.
He said: “We prepare this game with confidence, very quietly. We have a good purpose to do that, and we believe in our chance to pass.
“We know Le Guen, he played with Djamel. We are ready to play and compete, to pass this test.
“I don’t think the pressure is on. We have a young team with quality, it is the first time they’ve faced a competition. They do not have experience and have little fear. They have learned a lot, and they have improved in confidence.
“Oman is a better team than two or three years ago. They have improved their tempo, you can see they worked hard on this.
“We know how they play. We are not afraid of this game.”