GALLERY: UAE’s Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign so far

ashraf 12/10/2015

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Mahdi Ali admits UAE failed to deal with Saudi physicality

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Midfield dominance: Saudi.

The UAE’s inability to go toe-to-toe with Saudi Arabia doomed them to a damaging 2018 World Cup qualifying defeat, according to deflated boss Mahdi Ali.

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Deadly striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi converted a controversial penalty deep into second-half injury time to complete a brace and see the Green Falcons fight back for a valuable 2-1 win on Thursday.

The victory – secured in response to forward Ahmed Khalil’s outstanding opener via a dipping 30- yard free-kick – opened up a commanding five-point advantage in Group A of the AFC’s second round for the leaders against the meek visitors to Jeddah.

“Saudi Arabia was the better team,” Ali said. “We suffered on the physical level and couldn’t offer the required performance and didn’t show the image we are used to.

“They had a physical advantage, especially in midfield. I thought we were better in the last 20 minutes, but could not get another goal.

“But now we must seek to compensate in forthcoming fixtures. In the second match against Saudi Arabia, they will see a completely different UAE team.”

A scrap to become one of the four-best runners-up now seems certain for the vanquished Whites if they want to progress to the third round, a position they are just about holding on to in second spot in their pool on seven points.

Ali’s men had seemed set for a first victory against their neighbours since January 2007 after Al Ahli star Khalil’s strike on 18 minutes at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium. But crucial lapses of concentration in both periods of injury time contributed to a potentially-pivotal loss.

Al Nassr hot shot Al Sahlawi struck from Abdullah Al Dossary’s cross at the end of the first half, before slotting in at the death from 12 yards when Omar Abdulrahman was harshly adjudged to have fouled the theatrical Nawaf Al Abed.

Green Falcons boss Bert van Marwijk praised the focus of his players. He said: “We deserved to win after intensive work in the last period and I congratulate the players. When I’ve had to tell the players when they’ve played badly I’ve said it, but today they played great.”

Al Ain defender Mohannad Salem was the UAE’s stand-out player on a night when more celebrated figures such as Abdulrahman, Ismail Al Hammadi and Ali Mabkhout woefully underperformed.

He said: “We made many mistakes which we will seek to repair in the coming period, most notably in the decline of performance after scoring the first goal.”

The UAE will need to get their campaign back on track when they host Timor-Leste on November 12.

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UAE need Omar at his best in Saudi Arabia clash

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Key man: Abdulrahman.

UAE superstar Omar Abdulrahman has more reason than most to feel nervous ahead of Thursday night’s telling 2018 World Cup qualifying clash in Saudi Arabia.

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Born in Riyadh to immigrant parents from the Yemeni diaspora, an already special game will be layered with personal significance.

This understandable sense of foreboding has been added to by his recent brutal experiences against opposition from the Kingdom.

The Whites’ great hope was left battered and bruised by both the national team and regional heavyweights Al Hilal in 2014. Questions were asked of his physical and mental strength which he was unable to answer.

The 24-year-old’s reputation as the premier talent still plying his trade on the continent was soon repaired by the electric displays recorded during the UAE’s march to third in January’s Asian Cup.

Another statement of intent from the divinely-skilled playmaker, who has begun the domestic season in such fine form, is both imminent and required.

Only first place in Group A guarantees progression to the third round of AFC qualifying. Mahdi Ali’s men will need their shining light at his best to maintain hope of a second World Cup-qualification, when the top two meet.

Abdulrahman is light years away from the half-fit player who suffered one of the worst personal performances of his career as Hilal roared to a 3-0 AFC Champions League semi-final, first-leg triumph in September 2014.

The injury jinx of 2014/15 further stymied his contribution to November 2014’s Gulf Cup. A targeted series of crushing challenges on his scrawny frame by the hosts saw him removed in agony just 26 minutes into a distressing 3-2 semi-final loss in the Saudi capital.

Fast forward 12 months and the picture is much brighter. Abdulrahman has been spellbinding in the early stages of the Boss’ Arabian Gulf League title defence, making up for elongated spells on the sidelines which saw him contribute little to its attainment.

A joint-high three assists in four top-flight appearances have been recorded, his performance in the 2-0 dismantling of Al Wasl on September 13 the finest by any player thus far.

At Zabeel Stadium, Abdulrahman was masterful. Instinctive turns left veteran Portgual midfielder Hugo Viana chasing shadows.

The awe-inspiring displays have followed him to the international scene. A disappointingly-small number of spectators took in the UAE’s 10-0 dismantling of Malaysia last month.

But those in attendance at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium witnessed an incredible six assists on a night when he expertly combined invention and aptitude.

Abdulrahman – as ever – was the main topic during Wednesday’s pre-match press conferences in Jeddah. Whites boss Ali sought to exclaim the collective strength of his squad, while opposite number Bert van Marwijk highlighted him as “the most dangerous player” in the visiting ranks.

The former Netherlands coach was not around for the last meeting between the neighbouring nations, his appointment only being sealed in August. But the template laid out by predecessor Juan Ramon Lopez Caro should be followed.

Defensive midfielder Abdulmalek Al Khaibri and the vastly-experienced Taisir Al Jassim will snap into him with haste. Wide men Salem Al Dawsari and Nawaf Al Abed must also diligently restrict the pockets of space Abdulrahman likes to drift into. It will be up to Al Ahli battler Majed Hassan and Bani Yas schemer Amer Abdulrahman to fight fire with fire, providing the protective shield their exalted colleague requires to pick apart the Green Falcons rearguard.

Saudi Arabia possess a fearsome striker in Mohammad Al Sahlawi, while Al Jazira hit man Ali Mabkhout and Ahli centre forward Ahmed Khalil are lethal weapons for the side travelling to King Abdullah Sports Complex Stadium.

But Abdulrahman is incomparable in Asian football. Watch him prove it this evening.

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