Omar Abdulrahman salvages late 1-0 UAE win over Timor

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Abdulrahman's goal was much needed.

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.

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.

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.

 

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Mahdi Ali looks to Russia 2018, with love

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UAE players are put through their paces.

The UAE take their first step in World Cup qualification today against Timor-Leste at the Shah Alam Stadium in Malaysia with coach Mahdi Ali admitting booking a spot in Russia 2018 is as big of a dream for him as it is for his players.

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It has been 25 years since the Whites last featured in the World Cup finals – at Italia 1990 – and Mahdi believes it is this generation of players that deserves to seal a long-awaited place for the UAE at the elite quadrennial competition.

Mahdi and a majority of the national side, have graduated together through the various age group squads, and they should be brimming with confidence after they finished third at the Asian Cup in Australia earlier this year.

“These players have come up through the ranks and played for the UAE from the youth team all the way to the first team and this generation of players really deserves to play in the World Cup, and I also want to be part of achieving that dream with them,” Mahdi said ahead of Tuesday’s clash (kick-off: 12:00), the first for the Emiratis in their qualifying Group A.

“But we should not talk about this yet because we have an important match tomorrow and we have to focus on this game.”

Despite suffering a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of South Korea in a friendly last Thursday, Mahdi insists his squad are ready to take on Timor-Leste, who clinched a valuable point in their 1-1 draw with Malaysia in their opening qualifying game.

Coached by Brazilian Fabio Magrao, who formerly played for several UAE clubs including Al Jazira, Timor-Leste know a great deal about their West Asian rivals with a number of their players plying their trade in the Arabian Gulf League, like midfielder Rodrigo Silva, who plays for Emirates club.

“We’ve followed East Timor’s 1-1 draw with Malaysia in their first match and have enough information about them, just like they know us well because their coach used to play in the UAE, so do a number of their players,” added Mahdi, who is set to have favoured striker Ali Mabkhout back in the side after his missed the South Korea friendly due to fatigue.

“We saw many surprises in the first round of qualification – there are no big or small teams, whoever prepares harder on the field and works well will take the result I hope our team does its best to have a good start in what will undoubtedly be a difficult qualification campaign.”

Timor-Leste are competing at this stage in World Cup qualification for the first time after they sealed their spot in the group preliminaries with a 5-1 aggregate win over Mongolia last March.

Indeed, the first leg of that tie in Dili on March 12 was the very first qualifier played for Russia 2018.

Ranked 146, 73 spots below the UAE in the FIFA rankings, Magrao’s men are aware of the gulf in experience between the two sides but he is hoping they can pull off an upset.

“When we prepare you cannot just think about each team we face. We have to prepare our own team to know what we must do with and without the ball and prepare mentally to face the UAE who we know have played many World Cup qualifiers and have very good results in the last Asian Cup,” said Magrao.

“We started well with a good result over Malaysia and are satisfied with that but this is another game, we have to forget and focus on this game. But we are prepared and ready to face the UAE.”

But Magrao doesn’t think his players’ experience in the Arabian Gulf League will make much of a difference.

He added: “Our players who play in the UAE aren’t an advantage. This is another story now, this is the national team involving a different passion, it’s about nations and flags, a different game with different players.”

Saudi Arabia lie at the top of Group A with three points after beating Palestine 3-2 last week.

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