Whatever is required during the next four months, everyone involved with the UAE must come together and ensure they are on the same page in the bid to earn a hallowed spot at World Cup 2018.
Qualification remains tantalisingly close, though anything but definitive, after last night’s fractious 2-0 win against Iraq.
After a bitty performance from which only the outcome was markedly different to last month’s 3-0 humiliation in Saudi Arabia, which caused such tremors, coach Mahdi Ali declined to 100 per cent commit to prolonging his historic four-year reign. This is his right and it would still be an enormous shock if he is not still coach when competitive action resumes at home to Japan in March. It would be lunacy for him to walk away. Win all their remaining home games and a minimum third-placed finish and a right to contest for the inter-confederation play-off will surely be his.
Now, it is up to senior members of the squad and the leadership of the UAE Football Association to ensure an environment is fostered whereby unwavering support, commitment and critical analysis are applied in equal measure. This is the only way a second-ever entry into the globe’s greatest sporting event will be acquired.
Ali is a measured man, not prone to grandiose statements or instant reaction. Keeping counsel comes much more naturally than flagrantly suggesting his tenure is over or is set to continue into a bright new dawn after one result.
No-one deserves more praise for nurturing the ‘Golden Generation’. His achievements at the London 2012 Olympics, the 2013 Gulf Cup and 2015 Asian Cup deserve to live in legend.
Equally, it is incorrect to suggest Ali is impervious to self-reflection or being questioned. The mere existence of the whispers, that defeat Tuesday night could have cost him his job, however credible they may have been, signals imperfections.
The outdated 4-4-2 formation utilised at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium again failed to get the most out of his players. There is also a sense that favoured names continue to get the nudge over outsiders in form. It was curious to see both Al Nasr full-backs, Ahmed Al Yassi and Mahmoud Khamis, sat at home when there are such glaring issues in the position. Team-mate Salem Saleh and exciting Al Jazira prospect Khalfan Mubarak should also not have required injury withdrawals to feature as belated call-ups.
Ali can easily point to injuries to key man such as Al Ahli tyro Majed Hassan and Al Ain metronome Amer Abdulrahman as mitigating factors for another fractured display, while superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman was carrying a knock. But there should have been enough talent in the team to blow Iraq away, rather than require Ismail Matar’s goal to calm nerves.
The UAE FA must clearly set out a way forward. Key stars must challenge Ali to get the best out of them, while giving their all to the cause. The Saudis, Japan and Australia seem capable of such feats. So should the Whites.