#360view: UAE stars must produce goods for boss Ali

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
The UAE get ready for action in Abu Dhabi.

The time has arrived for the UAE’s celebrated ‘Golden Generation’ to repay a favour owed to a man who has done more for them than anyone else.

If rumours are to be believed, another slip up during tonight’s pressurised World Cup 2018 qualifier against Iraq will lead to the termination of coach Mahdi Ali’s groundbreaking four-year tenure. Such are the stakes as the dream of making the trip to Russia recedes by the result, with the nation outside the progression spots in fourth after last month’s 3-0 whipping in Saudi Arabia.

The 51-year-old’s generous nurturing has seen his favoured charges become rich in reputation and renumeration. The likes of Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman and feared Al Jazira hot-shot Ali Mabkhout must deliver at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium –

it is the least they can do after years of care.

The bond between the paternal supremo and many members of his squad was forged nearly a decade ago in the youth ranks.

They have gone from 2008 AFC U-19 Championship winners, to London 2012 Olympic breakout stars, 2013 Gulf Cup champions, astounding third-placed finishers at the 2015 Asian Cup and competitors in the final round to make the globe’s grandest sporting event.

Along the way, Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil made history last year as the first Emirati to become AFC Player of the Year. Abdulraman is now the clear favourite to make it back-to-back wins on December 1 at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Hotel.

Such success is unprecedented in the recent history of a nation which had struggled for relevance on the international stage since making their one-and-only appearance at the World Cup in 1990.

Managers of the renown of Carlos Queiroz, Roy Hodgson and Dick Advocaat have all flopped where Ali has soared. Not even the sorely missed Bruno Metsu could build on the 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations-triumph inspired in such thrilling fashion by the then-emerging Ismail Matar.

The current coach’s nationality as an Emirati has undoubtedly helped when compared to the foreign guns who came before him. But the identity of his passport has not been the defining factors.

He inherited a mess from placid predecessor Srecko Katanec upon his ascension after London. Faith that the Olympic stars would blossom saw the old guard, bravely, kicked out.

The Ahli pair of Khamis Esmail and Majed Hassan have grown into two of the continent’s finest defensive midfielders. Club-mate Ismail Al Hammadi is a winger capable of wreaking devastation, while even older hands such as Al Ain centre-backs Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem have progressed.

This is not to argue that Ali is blameless. A blinded perseverance with an outmoded 4-4-2 formation and a repeat desire to play favourites reached its zenith during last month’s 3-0 humiliation in the Kingdom which has led to such uncertainty about his future.

Yet, he merits seeing the job through. It is up to his charges now to take the decision about whether this happens away from the nervous UAE Football Association.

Most popular

INTERVIEW: Yoshida believes UAE duo are ready for Europe

Alam Khan 14/11/2016
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Yoshida goes up against Mabkhout.

Since taking part in their first World Cup finals in 1998, Japan have secured their place at football’s most prestigious tournament in another four editions.

Maya Yoshida is eager for that proud tradition to continue. He does not want to be part of the first Samurai Blue side that fails to reach the showpiece event since their debut in France. A nation expects. Nay, it demands.

But these are worrying times for Japan as Yoshida’s men host Saudi Arabia today in a crucial World Cup qualifier, three points behind the unbeaten Group B leaders, and in third place, a point behind Australia and one ahead of the UAE, who beat them 2-1 in September.

“To be honest we are struggling,” the Southampton defender tells Sport360 exclusively. “Everyone thinks we should go to the World Cup easily, but it’s not easy. There’s always pressure playing for the national team because everyone expects us to win.

“Yes, I want to play in another World Cup after Brazil, but we need to go step by step. We need to stop talking about it, but get there.

“The Saudi game is very important, we need to get three points against the team that is first. We need to match them because this group could be decided in the final games.

Japan results so far

  • LOSS: 1-2 UAE
  • WIN: 0-2 THAILAND
  • WIN: 2-1 IRAQ
  • DRAW: 1-1 AUSTRALIA

“I don’t think there is such a big difference between the countries anymore. Maybe before Japan was ahead, but not now.

“The Gulf teams are very good technically and Australia also tried to change their style. It’s not kick and rush anymore and they try to play football. Before we played more passing football, now it’s a little faster, high intensity.

“This qualifying campaign is much tougher than I expected. We couldn’t play well from the start against the UAE. There are many reasons why we lost, and I don’t want to make excuses, but anyway, we need to win in Asia all the time.”

The fact that four-time Asian champions Japan have many players who ply their trade in the stronger European leagues brings added expectation.

While Yoshida has been with the Saints since 2012, joining from Dutch club VVV-Venlo, there is also Shinji Kagawa, back at Borussia Dortmund, striker Shinji Okazaki – a Premier League title-winner at Leicester City – and AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda.

Reading’s Oman keeper Ali Al Habsi remains the only Gulf footballer currently in English football, but Yoshida, 28, believes it is time for that to change. After Japan’s loss to the UAE, he was left impressed by ‘number 7’, striker Ali Mabkhout, and ‘number 10’ Omar Abdulrahman.

Both have been linked with moves abroad, with playmaker Abdulrahman – who had a trial at Manchester City in 2012 and is on the three-man shortlist for 2016 AFC Player of the Year – repeatedly questioned why he has chosen to stay at Al Ain rather than test himself at a higher level.

“People have talked about him playing in Europe, especially at Manchester City, and he’s in the final of the AFC Champions League now with Al Ain, which is good news,” adds Yoshida, who left his homeland for Venlo six years ago to follow his dream like other Japan legends such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.

“He’s a good player, but I think it’s good timing to make another step, to come to Europe, not immediately to City or the Premier League either, but to another league where he can learn and adapt, like I did in Holland with Venlo. That experience helped before I came to England.

“Honda did the same from Grampus. I’m sure if [Abdulrahman] comes to Europe, he will learn many things and will be another one or two levels step up. He’s just 25.

“There’s a lot of pressure here and it’s not easy when you are an international as well, all the travelling, the jet lag, the attention, but how many players from the UAE have gone to Europe and played in a big league? None? So maybe he can be the first one to make a good way, a path, for others to follow.

“For every country you need a pioneer. This way, it is not easy for that person, but it’s so good when you make it.

“It’s not only on the pitch, but off it. You have to be a role model and it’s a massive honour for me to play in the Premier League, to play for my country.

“When I watched Nakata, Shunsuke, when they started playing in Europe, it made it easy to imagine we will play in Europe one day. It inspired all of us.

“I was always watching Liverpool or Chelsea games and my hero was Steven Gerrard. I used to play defensive midfielder so used to watch him and Claude Makelele at Chelsea before I moved to defence.”

Yoshida’s versatility has been useful to the Saints as he covers the backline with Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk the preferred centre-back option. But he has still helped his side to the League Cup quarter finals and beating Inter Milan in the Europa League.

“Yes, I would like to play more games, but this is the Premier League and that’s my point, it’s not easy,” he adds.

“You have to accept you might not play every game, you might be on the bench and take your chance when it comes. So it might be better for someone new to go to a smaller league, Germany, Holland or France and show your ability and then go higher. If [Abdulrahman] does that, it’s a big opportunity for him and for the UAE.

“It is important for the UAE league and helps Asia when you have players at a higher level. We all support each other, whether they are from Japan, Korea, China or UAE. We may be rivals at our clubs, but we are also mates. We try to lead Asian football, make it better.”

While playing his own part, the success of Okazaki at Leicester has helped further.

The Foxes shocked the world by winning the championship and he adds: “We always used to meet up and talk about it and he’d say ‘it will never happen, and we are going down maybe’. It’s incredible what he did. It’s great for Japan when he does well like this.”

Most popular

Asia Angle: Five big WCQ questions

John Duerden 14/11/2016
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Five burning questions...

It’s time for Matchday Five in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup.

Twelve teams have been split into two groups of six with the top two from each going straight to Russia. The two third-placed finishers enter the play-off route.

Sport360 asks five questions before the big day.

CAN SAUDI ARABIA TAKE A MASSIVE STEP TOWARDS RUSSIA?

After four games, Saudi Arabia sit on top of Group A with a very solid ten point haul. There has been a little luck (three penalties for all the team’s goals in the first two games) but the Green Falcons have improved as the group has progressed.

The only dropped points came at home against Australia and the 3-0 win over the United Arab Emirates was as important as it was impressive.

But a trip to Japan is perhaps the toughest yet. It is the first time in the group that Saudi Arabia will play a real away game outside their own borders (OK, they played Iraq in Malaysia but there was no home advantage for the Iraqis) and it will be both chilly and red-hot at a full Saitama Stadium.

Japan need the win but have not been as impressive as usual. UAE won in the Land of the Rising Sun and Iraq were unlucky to lose to a 95th minute goal.

A draw would be a fine result for Bert Van Marwijk’s men while a win would be special. There is confidence that it can be done. Should Saudi Arabia take all three points, they could have a six-point cushion between them and the play-off place. They would take some catching.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA GET BACK ON TRACK?

The two East Asian giants are not exactly struggling but both sit in third place in their respective groups with seven points. It is possible, though unlikely, that they could both be top of their groups by Wednesday morning.

But if Korea lose to Uzbekistan in Seoul and Japan lose to Saudi Arabia in Saitama then hopes of automatic qualification will really be in the balance. Neither team has yet to find its fluency in this stage and the pressure is on both coaches.

Should defeat visit these corners of East Asia then both Uli Stielike and Vahid Halilhodzic could well find themselves out of a job.

You have to go back to 1994 when Japan did not appear at the World Cup while 1982 is the last Korea-less global football fest. The road to 2018 could look a lot different by the end of this week.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN UAE RECOVER FROM SAUDI SETBACK?

It all started so well for the Whites with a historic 2-1 win in Japan. Then came a home defeat to Australia and victory against Thailand. Six points from the first three games was a solid start but the 3-0 loss in Jeddah was painful with all three goals coming in the final quarter.

The defeat put some pressure on coach Mahdi Ali, a man who has done so much to improve the national team but could fall victim to the rise in expectations that are a natural by-product of progress.

UAE have to beat Iraq, not just to stay within touching distance of automatic qualification but to show that they can bounce back from bad results. It will also make the second half of the group very interesting indeed.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN LIPPI END QATARI HOPES?

After three defeats in three games, Qatar’s win over Syria keeps hopes alive. But the Maroons need to keep winning and it won’t be easy in China for two reasons.

China may be bottom of the group with one point but now have Marcello Lippi in charge. This game is the first for one of the most successful coaches in history and the Italian just being there is going to lift the hosts.

And then there is the fact that the game is taking place in Kunming. The city, not far north of the border with Vietnam, is almost 2000 metres above sea level and it takes some getting used to. The Chinese players have been there since the start of the month.

The 2022 World Cup hosts can’t afford to lose if they are to keep their, already slim, hopes of an automatic place in Russia alive. Qatar beat Russia in last week’s friendly meeting and need more of the same in China.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre 

CAN IRAN KEEP ANOTHER CLEAN SHEET?

Iran has played four, won three, drawn one, scored four and conceded none. It is not going to be a roller-coaster ride to Russia but that won’t bother coach Carlos Queiroz one little bit. The important thing for the former Real Madrid boss is that Iran qualify for a successive World Cup for the first time ever.

That is likely to happen and the chances will only improve should Iran defeat Syria on Tuesday in neutral Malaysia. Iran are well-organised and with enough individual talent throughout the team to make a difference when it matters.

If Iran win, they could go six points clear of the play-off places and will be at least four ahead. For a team like that doesn’t look like conceding never mind losing, that would be a formidable lead.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

Most popular