The UAE’s Olympic dream could move a step closer on Sunday.
Beat holders Uzbekistan in the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship’s quarter-finals and the junior Whites will, potentially, stand 90 minutes away from Tokyo 2020.
Defeat, however, at Bangkok’s iconic Rajamangala Stadium (17:15 KO) would further dim a future that has been darkened by the seniors’ unpropitious start to World Cup 2022 qualifying.
In contrast to their elders, optimism exists. The same springboard that sent Omar Abdulrahman and Co. on the path to becoming a ‘Golden Generation’ could launch Maciej Skorza’s talented bunch into the stratosphere.
The Pole’s men put in a series of controlled performances to top Group D.
Goals in successive fixtures for Al Jazira forward Zayed Al Ameri helped earn a 2-0 win versus North Korea and 1-1 stalemate with Jordan. A containing job on fancied Vietnam in the goalless opener stood as statement of intent.
They were out shot in each match – Vietnam 14/11, North Korea 14/12 and Jordan 10/6. Possession was only edged against the DPRK.
A wall, however, stood in front of the UAE net. It would be breached just once.
Al Ain’s underutilised Mohammed Ali Shaker and outstanding Jazira prospect Khalifa Al Hammadi – already a lock for the seniors – stood guard, while Al Wahda goalkeeper Mohamed Al Shamsi’s burgeoning reputation across the continent is being further furnished.
Jazira’s Abdullah Ramadan and Mohammed Al Attas, plus Sharjah’s Majed Surour, are midfielders of significant promise. It is a luxury to be able to throw on Wahda’s Tahnoon Al Zaabi.
Even though more attempts were conceded, the vast majority were of poor quality. This was particularly true during a second half versus Jordan that was defined by containment.
In attack, only Iraq’s Mohammed Qasim and Thailand’s Jaroensak Wonggorn have more strikes to their name (both three) than Al Ameri.
There was, also, significant promise exhibited off the substitutes’ bench by the beguiling Yahya Al Ghassani. The Al Wahda winger’s cameo against Jordan, in place of injured Al Wasl forward Ali Saleh, provided frivolity in a tense contest.
Recent history provides further comfort.
The Uzbeks were beaten 2-1 in November’s friendly tournament in Dubai. When heavyweights China or Iran looked probable opponents pre-tournament, this outcome is desirable.
Possible semi-final opponents Saudi Arabia were downed 2-0 at the same event. The only regret will be that Olympic hosts Japan did not make the last-eight, if they had all four semi entrants will have progressed rather than just the top three.
January 25’s third-place play-off may yet be decisive.
History has a habit of repetition. Uzbekistan were downed in March 2012’s epic 3-2 away triumph to earn hallowed progress to London 2012.
It is not a decider this time when the nations meet. The pressure, however, is almost as severe.
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