The penultimate round of Asia World Cup qualifying is nearing the halfway point yet the road to Russia 2018 may well feel further away than ever for the UAE after Tuesday night’s chastening 3-0 defeat to fierce foes Saudi Arabia.
A promising first-half performance from the Whites was rendered largely redundant by a second-half horror show in which the hosts took control of both the game, and Group B, with three sublime goals.
Three goals inside the game’s final 17 minutes suddenly turned an admirable away performance into a nightmare – Fahad Al Muwallad, Nawaf Al Abed and Yehya Al Shehri strikes wiping out all UAE’s good work and sending the Green Falcons soaring to the top of Group B on 10 points.
The result means the UAE’s woeful record against their hosts goes on. They have not beaten Saudi in nearly 10 years – a record that includes eight defeats and one draw since they last tasted victory.
Whites coach Mahdi Ali was left lamenting a fine first-half performance that was undone by individual mistakes in the second period.
“We saw the UAE were the better team in the first half, we had better control of the ball,” he said. “In the second half, we made individual mistakes that cost us. But this happens in football. They took advantage of our mistakes and that’s what helped them get the upper hand in the second half.”
The 51-year-old, however, remains upbeat with six more group games remaining.
“I think we still have a chance, it’s still the start,” he added. “Saudi Arabia will still play Japan in Japan, if they lose and we win then there is one point difference. It’s not a big difference between the teams. We need to rethink everything though and look into what went wrong.”
It had been an encouraging start from the visitors who took the game to the hosts, who were nevertheless happy to sit back and soak up significant pressure from the advancing red wall.
Riyadh-born Omar Abdulrahman was predictably pulling the strings for Ali’s side and he set up the returning Ahmed Khalil for an early sighter only for the Al Ahli striker to fluff his attempted shot.
Al Ain centre-back Mohanad Salam rose to meet Amoory’s in-swinging corner and should have done better than clear the crossbar under no pressure.
Omar Hawsawi was also let off the hook when his underhit backpass had Yasser Al Mosailem scrambling, the goalkeeper reacting well to clear ahead of the onrushing Khalil.
Saudi playmaker Taisir Al Jassim had been left bloodied by this point after being sandwiched by Abdulrahman and Abdulaziz Haikal in an aerial challenge. It was innocuous but the incident seemed to spark the partisan King Abdullah Sports Stadium crowd and their team into life.
Lively right-back Hassan Fallatah’s cross brought Majed Nasser into action before Nawaf Al Abed’s deflected centre reached Salman Al Faraj, a summer target for Al Jazira, at the back post but he skied horribly over.
The game’s tempo had now been set and Haikal, after beating the offside trap, got bored of waiting for support to arrive and rifled an effort from an acute angle into the side netting.
With 17 minutes remaining, the moment of decisive quality the game was crying out for arrived when substitute Al Muwallad allowed Al Faraj’s searching crossfield ball to drop over his shoulder. The Al Ittihad attacker rifled it into Majed Nasser’s top left corner before it dropped to send the partisan home crowd into rapture.
Six minutes later the roof nearly came off the King Abdullah Sports City stadium as the Green Falcons flew into a 2-0 lead through the game’s best player – Al Abed.
The goal came from a UAE corner. A clearance fell to Abdulaziz Haikal on the halfway line and the dozing Red Knights right-back miscontrolled, allowing the hosts to pour forward.
Nasser palmed away Al Muwallad’s initial soft effort but Al Abed calmly stroked into the top corner. Of Saudi’s eight goals in this penultimate round of qualifying, the 26-year-old Al Hilal schemer has four of them.
Ali threw on Saeed Al Kathiri in a vain attempt to gain something from what had turned into a horror show, one that got even worse in stoppage time as Yehya Al Shehri, anonymous up until this point, curled in a free-kick to pour salt into the UAE’s already gaping wounds.
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UAE have an abysmal record against their Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia, tasting victory just five times in 34 meetings since 1972.
They have never won on Saudi soil and their last victory in this fixture was nearly a decade ago. A seven-game losing streak against the Green Falcons was finally halted in March when Omar Abdulrahman netted in a 1-1 draw in Abu Dhabi.
So, what do they need to do to beat Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night? Here, we list five things that could help them turn things around.
TARIQ AHMED MUST START
Mahdi Ali has too often persisted with Amer Abdulrahman, but gave Al Nasr’s Ahmed the nod against Thailand and the 28-year-old was one of the Whites’ top performers. Harrying opponents and neat and tidy in possession, his energy could prove vital in Jeddah.
WHITES WON’T ESCAPE AGAIN
Thailand dominated the second half in Abu Dhabi, with Mohamed Fawzi fading badly, which would have
drastically concerned Ali. Tana Chanabut wasted several chances to add to the Thai tally on Thursday, but any such tardiness from the UAE in Jeddah will be punished.
AHMED TO ANSWER TO KHAL
Rested prior to the Thai game, Ahmed Khalil played 15 minutes and proved his enduring worth to the UAE with his 40th goal for the Whites. Khalil, the sort of player who relishes the big occasion, will play from the start on Tuesday night and his power and prowess in front of goal could prove crucial.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman are undoubtedly the UAE’s two best players, but against Thailand they tried to force too many things. They have the class to guide the UAE to three points tonight but they need to play in sync and not overplay and put Saudi on the front foot.
TIME TO BELIEVE
The UAE are better individually but the Saudi collective have long been superior. For the Whites to triumph,
the players have to remove their mental block and truly believe it is possible. Nerves of steel are required in front of 60,000.
The Whites have an abysmal record against their Gulf neighbours, tasting victory just five times in 34 meetings since 1972. They have never won on Saudi soil and their last victory in this fixture was nearly a decade ago. A seven-game losing streak against the Green Falcons was finally halted in March when Omar Abdulrahman netted in a 1-1 draw in Abu Dhabi.
The 62,241 capacity King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah is expected to be nearly full when the two sides meet on Tuesday, but Ali has described the Saudi stronghold as a “second home” ahead of the crucial encounter.
“We are not afraid of the audience,” insists Ali, who also claims he does not pay attention to the history books. We will be okay with the big audience and are not afraid to face it. This is our second home.
“I don’t think about history, that’s in the past. We’ll try to change this record.”
The UAE lie third in Group B in the penultimate round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, level on points with Japan and a point behind Australia and Tuesday’s opponents.
With three games gone and seven left to play, Ali also downplayed the significance of this result.
“There is no difference between the teams at the top; UAE, Australia, Saudi and Japan. The difference is only one point, which is nothing at all. Nothing will be decided in the first round of fixtures,” added the 51-year-old.
“In the second round everything will change because some of the teams will have to travel a long way. That will assist in deciding the fate of the group. It’s a very important match for both teams, [but] the group will not be decided by this, the qualification will not be confirmed until the final moments.”
Saudi’s Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk is looking forward to a “special” game between old foes.
“It’s a special game against an opponent who also wants to go to Russia,” said the 64-year-old former Netherlands and Borussia Dortmund manager. “It’s also a derby. We’re neighbours. So for several reasons this is a special game. We are looking forward to it.
“These are two teams who know each other very well and don’t have secrets for each other. They have none for us and the other way round it’s the same.”