A grateful nation in need requires one last act of stellar service from Ismail Matar.
In the absence of waylaid 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, the timeless 117-cap veteran stepped into a void few of the faithful at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium believed could be filled during Tuesday’s night critical World Cup 2018 qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
Defeat in just his second start of this lengthy campaign would have ended the dreams of the ‘Golden Generation’ he inspired, more than anyone else. Instead, and in typical fashion, the 34-year-old living legend orchestrated a clutch 2-1 triumph as playmaker which means another miracle act awaits in next week’s rousing third-and-final-round finale against eliminated Iraq.
A heavy win allied with a sizeable slice of good fortune will send the Whites on their way into next summer’s tournament in Russia.
With unstoppable Al Jazira front man Ali Mabkhout now joining the esteemed ‘Amoory’ on the sidelines for the defining Group B-clash in Amman, Matar’s role is to be amplified even further.
At an age when most footballers have just the comfort of club football to keep them busy, injuries and suspensions which have decimated the UAE’s ‘big three’ ensure the hero of the historic 2007 Gulf Cup-success on home soil is the main man once again – and after all these years.
Eyebrows were raised in Al Ain an hour before kick-off when the expected news of Abdulrahman’s absence was joined by the unexpected choice from Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza in his second math at the helm to plump for Matar as his replacement. The hands of time and rise of the ‘Golden Generation’ had made Matar an increasingly-peripheral presence.
Any dissenting – and ungrateful – voices were soon silenced as the Al Wahda icon slotted seamlessly into a new 4-3-1-2 formation which, belatedly, delivered a display of refined calibration.
The player who first shone when winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship was central to this success.
Unnerving accuracy and incisive vision was on show throughout his sterling 77 minute on the pitch. Whether unleashing striker Ahmed Khalil’s pace on the break with long balls or linking up with the likes of rampaging Al Nasr tyro Tariq Ahmed in close quarters, the Saudis could not quell him.
His success while opposing attacking stalwart Taisir Al Jassim fruitlessly toiled was a key component of this success.
In Jordan, Matar will need to engineer a minimum swing of eight in goal difference for his country to stand any chance of advancement. But on this evidence, his powers to produce footballing drama remain intact.
In the Pantheon of UAE football greats, he is rivalled only by World Cup 1990 stars Khalid Ismail, Ali Thani and Adnan Al Talyani.
Provide the bullets on Tuesday for 16-goal joint-global top scorer Khalil and one of Middle East football’s finest careers will bequeath a priceless, potential, parting gift.
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