#360view: UAE must believe they can overcome Japan

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Golden generation: Time for UAE to shine.

    The defining test for a ‘Golden Generation’ begins Thursday. An apparently pre-ordained path to World Cup 2018 starts winding towards its finish when play in the third-and-final-round of qualifiers gets under way.

    Regional heavyweight Japan and their sold-out, 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium await. Identifying a more taxing examination of a team’s credentials on this con-tinent is a troublesome task, yet belief should abound.

    Spectacular progress – from defiantly edging out this afternoon’s hosts and then holders in the quarter-finals of the 2015 Asian Cup, to lifting the 2013 Gulf Cup, playing at the London 2012 Olympics and making first notice of their talent with victory at the 2008 AFC U-19 Championship – has been witnessed. The time has now arrived to cash in on this development, no further reticence or procrastination can be tolerated.

    Heavy work was made of the preceding stage, in which an unfathomably fortunate set of results on the last day turned a potentially-defining contest against Saudi Arabia into a dead rubber. No second chances will arise on the way to September 2017’s culmination.

    Thoughts are yet to be dispelled that last year’s continental exploits represent an early peak, a 2-0 loss to North Korea last week also not helping the mood. But this squad have repeatedly proved even a double header against Japan and then Australia in Abu Dhabi on September 6 can be overcome.

    Under the patronage of punctilious coach Mahdi Ali, a gifted group has been nurtured from teenage prospects to contenders for a second entry – and first since 1990 – onto football’s grandest stage.

    Playmaker Omar Abdulrahman has become a globally-recognised superstar thanks to his frizzy hair and even more eye-catching manipulation of a football. Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil made history by becoming the first Emirati recipient of the AFC Asian Player of the Year honour in 2015, while Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout has developed the welcome habit of collecting Golden Boots.

    Beyond the obvious candidates, Ahli’s versatile defender Walid Abbas was a fearless performer during defeat in the away leg of the 2015 AFC Champions League final at Guangzhou Evergrande. Towering Al Ain centre-back Ismail Ahmed was nominated for the top individual Asian gong in 2014, while club partner Mohanad Salem’s stoic display in the landmark last-eight win defied every lazy stereotype about players from the Middle East.

    The lengthy periods away from home under their exacting mentor, the everyday sacrifices required to push for international glory, have all been because of this moment and the – minimum – nine other Group B contests to come.

    A look across from the Whites heroes as the anthems are played in front of a partisan crowd in Saitama should draw breath. Vahid Halilhodzic’s starting XI will contain household names such as Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa and Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki, with AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda settling for a spot on the bench.

    Japan are red-hot favourites to secure a sixth-consecutive World Cup-berth and 13 members of this squad ply their trade in Europe.

    To overcome these odds, a pressure-cooker approach has been applied by Ali. A month-long training camp in Spain was followed by a week in Dubai and 12 days in Shanghai.

    He is convinced minds are honed rather than drained for a contest in which the avoidance of defeat is key to long-term aspirations.

    It is this mix of repetition, technical acumen and applied belief from their Asian Cup exploits which will be key. Now, the players must prove that the sheen from the ‘Golden Generation’ has not started to scrape away.