The UAE’s 20-match unbeaten run came to an end in Switzerland, as a Henrikh Mkhitaryan brace helped Armenia to a 4-3 win at the Stade de la Fontenette.
Armenia took the lead eight minutes before half-time as Levon Hayrapetan fired through the legs of Khalid Essa, with the Whites temporarily down to 10 men with Hamdan Al Kamali off injured.
Mahdi Ali’s side had given as good as they got until that point though and Ismail Ahmed headed them level just three minutes later.
They would go into half-time behind though, as Mkhitaryan capped a crazy five-minute spell with his first goal of the match.
Opposite number, Omar Abdulrahman, pounced to restore parity shortly after the break but with the UAE bench emptying and weary legs on display Mkhitaryan grabbed his second, before Rumyan Hovsepyan gave Armenia breathing space.
Mohanad Salem headed home late on but it was nothing more than a consolation as the UAE slipped to their first defeat since a 1-0 loss against Japan, in Mahdi first game in charge 20 months ago.
Ranked 33rd in the world, Armenia represented a step up in quality from the opposition the UAE are used to facing but as the game got under way they more than held their own.
Indeed they could, and probably should, have taken the lead in the first 60 seconds, had Ali Mabkhout made the most of an inviting chance.
But having shown great composure to control strike partner Ahmed Khalil’s cross, and create space, the Al Jazira man shot straight at Gevorg Kasparov in the Armenian goal.
Mabkhout was proving a handful and four minutes later, he cut in from the left wing but saw his curled effort roll just past the far post.
Armenia were beginning to impose themselves though, and were unlucky not to take the lead as Gevorg Ghazaryan side-footed Yura Movsisyan’s low cross against the post.
UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa then had to be alert to tip a cross-cum-shot from Aras Obiliz around for a corner, before Karlen Mkrtchyan sent a volley from the resulting set piece narrowly wide.
The pressure on the UAE was building, and things got worse for Mahdi Ali’s side with 10 minutes of the half remaining as centre-back Al Kamali limped off with what appeared to be a knee injury.
The Whites were forced to play with 10 men for several minutes as Salem prepared to come on and Armenia took full advantage, taking the lead through Hayrapetan after a one-two with Movsisyan.
It seemed a cruel blow for a spirited performance in the first 37 minutes, but within 180 seconds Mahdi’s side were level as Ismail Ahmed powered home a header from an Omar Abdulrahman corner.
Ahmed’s intervention was deserved but parity would last less than two minutes as Mkhitaryan finished off a slick counter, slotting Movsisyan’s low cross past Essa.
The UAE had 45 minutes to save their long unbeaten run, but needed just six to draw level as Ali Mabkhout did brilliantly to hold up the ball on the byline before picking out Omar Abdulrahman, with an inch-perfect cut-back.
The Al Ain playmaker didn’t even need to check his stride as he stroked home from 15 yards.
Buoyed by their equaliser the UAE enjoyed a fine spell and could have taken the lead had Mabkhout done better with a sublime through ball from Omar Abdulrahman.
Armenia made the most of that let off, and as their superior fitness began to show, eased away from their opponents with two goals in four minutes.
First, Mkhitaryan breezed past substitute Mohammed Ahmed – only brought on seconds earlier – before chipping past Essa. Four minutes later debutant midfielder Hovsepyan headed home from a corner to all-but seal the UAE’s fate.
They refused to give in though, and after Mahdi had handed Ali Salmeen a first cap, Salem headed home with five minutes left to give the Whites hope.
It was too little too late to salvage their unbeaten run, but the UAE did leave the Stade de la Fontenette with their pride intact.
The UAE will get a good idea of how far they have come under coach Mahdi Ali when they take on Armenia in Switzerland.
Since a 1-0 defeat to Asian heavyweights Japan in his first game in charge, the Whites have embarked on a 20-game unbeaten run; won the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations and qualified for the 2015 Asian Cup by finishing top of Group E.
However, this evening’s match is only the second time Mahdi’s side have come up against European opposition in his 20 months at the helm, and the first occasion they have faced a country ranked in the world’s top 50 since his debut in Niigata.
Armenia are currently ranked 33rd in the world by FIFA and acquitted themselves well in World Cup qualifying, beating Czech Republic and Denmark, while drawing with Italy away from home.
Their squad also contains Borussia Dortmund star Henrikh Mkhitaryan, yet UAE defender Mohanad Salem says the Whites are confident of achieveing a victory.
“We are looking forward to making it a winning start by implementing the tactics and strategies of the coach to continue our positive run and build on this for the future challenges,” he said.
The only other time the UAE have played a European side under Mahdi came on November 14, 2012, when they beat Estonia 2-1 in Abu Dhabi.
However, with the Gulf Cup in Saudi Arabia in November, and then the Asian Cup in Australia just two months later, the UAE Football Association have lined up some testing games to help them prepare.
Armenia will be the first of nine games the Whites will play between now and then, with a game against Georgia next Tuesday followed by Norway on August 27, and World Cup finalists Belgium on September 4.
Morocco, Australia and Uzbekistan have also been lined up before the UAE’s Gulf Cup training camp begins on November 1.
The match against Armenia comes after an energy-sapping season, with 12 of the 24-man squad able to join up only after last Sunday’s President’s Cup final.
Mahdi could hand three players their international debuts at the Stade de la Fontenette, with teenagers Ahmed Rabea, Ali Salmeen and Yousif Saeed all in his squad.
New Armenia coach, Bernard Challandes – who oversaw a 2-0 defeat against Russia in his first game in charge in March – has eight uncapped players in his 30-man squad.
UAE (4-4-2): Khaseif; Haikal, Al Kamali, I Ahmed, W Abbas; Fardan, Esmail, Hassan, Omar; Mabkhout, Khalil
Armenia (4-2-3-1): Berezovsky; Mkoyan, Arzumanyan, Haroyan, Hayrapetyan; Mkrtchyan, Yedigaryan; Ozbiliz, Mkhitaryan, Ghazaryan; Guevgeozian
Registrations are now open for the new edition of the successful Duplays Premier Football League competition that begins on June 2.
The eight-week competition, open to male players aged 17 and above, will be played in a seven-a-side format.
Running through Ramadan, the matches scheduled between 20:00 and 23:00 will take place at two different venues – Dubai Sports World (indoors) and Dubai American Academy (outdoors).
Depending on your team’s ability, there are four different divisions to choose from, with a separate league for each day. Sundays and Tuesdays will be the competitive division, while the recreational category will be played on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Gareth Curtis, Dubai operations manager at Duplays, said: “The temperature in the UAE is now increasing but this doesn’t stop us planning more leagues at Duplays.
“We usually have about four or five football leagues per year, and it’s always been a popular sport at Duplays.
“And with the World Cup soon approaching, we believe this will be another successful league that will attract a number of people to the competition.”
Unlike previous editions, each league will be restricted to 12 teams who will play one match a week. Each match will last 24 minutes straight with no offside rules.
Teams will be able to make unlimited substitutions during the match. As the competition is being held during Ramadan as well as the World Cup, Curtis revealed the tournament had been planned with both in mind.
Curtis said: “The kick-off times will be later than usual since it will be played during Ramadan so people can break their fast and then play.
“The World Cup final (on July 13) will clash with our Sunday league so we will try to make some changes on that particular day so that the players can watch the final.”
Organised by Duplays, the UAE’s largest sport and social club, Curtis said the competition provides an opportunity for people to play football regardless of their ability.
Team entries cost Dh3,500, while individuals, who will be formed into a side, will be charged Dh500.
What: Duplays Premier Football League
Where: Dubai Sports World and Dubai American Academy
When: June 2 to July 21
Contact: Register at duplaysdubai.playpass.com