Omar Abdulrahman has done it many times before for the UAE, lighting up the London 2012 Olympics, the 2013 Gulf Cup and 2015 Asian Cup.
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The grandest stage of all could now await, UAE’s resident superstar coming to the rescue to see the Whites kick-off their lengthy World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 win against lowly Timor-Leste.
With the clock ticking towards 80 minutes and a drab beginning to the quest to make just a second-ever appearance in the tournament looming, the Al Ain playmaker duly delivered. His thunderbolt out of the blue provided a winning start in Group A of the AFC second-round, breaking the deadlock in a dreary match.
The UAE were not helped by either circumstance or location. The humid Shah Alam Stadium in Malaysia – brought in as hosts because facilities in the tiny and recently war torn Timor-Leste were not up to scratch – offered a bobbly pitch which cut up with alarming ease, not conducive to the Whites’ usually fluent passing game.
An interminably long season drained the strengths of the visitors, who had battled to third place in November’s 2014 Gulf Cup and January’s Asian Cup in addition to their Arabian Gulf League commitments. All these factors played into O Sol Nascente’s hands, who understandably sat back and looked to hit on the counter-attack against esteemed opponents 73 places higher in the latest FIFA rankings.
The cavernous Shah Alam didn’t provide the most inspirational setting either, it’s enormous stands which can house up to 80,372 fans deserted with only 200 officially in attendance.
— Ahdaaf (@ahdaafme) June 16, 2015
Mahdi Ali’s men continued in the same snail-paced fashion which characterised Thursday’s 3-0 friendly humbling against South Korea, failing to imprint their undoubted quality on proceedings. They declined to play at a high-enough tempo to make Timor crack or string enough possession along to force gaps.
A sense of destiny is driving the coach and his group of players who have developed together for the best part of a decade. They will know better performances are required in future, their past record meaning they can be trusted to deliver.
The UAE’s best chance of the opening period came in the 13th minute and it was a glaring one. Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout was picked out on the break out wide, his cross being poorly cleared into the path of Al Ahli winger Ismail Al Hammadi who panicked and ballooned an inviting opportunity over from 12 yards.
A familiar face was in the east Asian’s dugout, ex-Al Jazira midfielder Fabio Magrao in charge. He had already seen striker Patrick Fabiano shoot wide when sprung on the break before comical defending from skipper Walid Abbas and stand-in Al Ain centre-back Mohamed Ahmed played in forward Jairo Neto, who could only shoot wide from just inside the box.
UAE have been pretty poor so far. East Timor sitting deep and asking them, ‘show us what you’ve got?’ Desperately need to up the tempo
— James Piercy (@piercy360) June 16, 2015
Mabkhout saw chances from close to goal – as a result of a beautiful Omar Abdulrahman pass – and far range go begging immediately after the interval as the UAE clunked up a gear. A search for goals saw Al Ain reserve Saeed Al Kathiri and Ahmed Khalil join him on 60 minutes, making it a trio of forwards on the pitch.
An air of desperation came in as the clock ticked down, Jazira defensive midfielder Khamis Esmail – who was the best player on the pitch – firing in several teasing drives from 25 yards as Timor dropped further and further back. This approach finally brought reward when Omar Abdulrahman was given too much space 25 yards from goal, his slight frame producing fearsome pace on a shot which goalkeeper Ramos Maxanches allowed to fly past him.
Much sterner tests await for the Whites. Successive away matches at Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the autumn sure to be telling about their hopes of progressing from the second round of Asian Football Confederation qualifying. This match at the end of a draining campaign was purely about racking up three points, forget the performance.
Thanks to their ever-inspirational attacking spark, they have just that.