A damaging defeat to Australia on Tuesday left the UAE looking for a new coach and with dreams of making World Cup 2018 in tatters.
Physically outmatched by the Socceroos in a match they should have dared not to lose, unmarked headers from corners in each half by Burton Albion centre midfielder Jackson Irvine and Ingolstadt winger Mathew Leckie were enough to halt the once-ailing host’s run of four-successive draws.
The final whistle at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium was soon followed by coach Mahdi Ali announcing his resignation, terminating a four-and-a-half-year tenure which began with such hope after the London 2012 Olympics but ended in despair. He exits with the once seemingly pre-destined belief that the ‘Golden Generation’ would secure the nation’s second-ever participation in ruins.
A desperate bid from the 51-year-old to patch up qualifying’s 15-goal joint-top scorer Ahmed Khalil only produced a leaden run-out and forced exit before the hour mark. This situation left improved 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman with a one-man mission he couldn’t complete.
There was far more purpose to this display than Thursday’s lifeless 2-0 defeat to Japan. Yet not nearly enough to threaten a comeback in both yesterday’s fixture or even the third-and-final round itself.
Ali’s reputation – raised to stratospheric levels on his last trip Down Under as third place was attained at January 2015’s Asian Cup – has been battered throughout this process. The journey with the man who had guided much of this team to success in 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship had reached an end point.
The situation for the team he leaves behind is terminal. Their remaining three Group B games – at home to Saudi Arabia, away at Thailand and Iraq – must be won, while perennial entrants the Socceroos, for one, have to drop points against the top two of Japan and Saudi.
Slim margins for a country left to pray that third spot’s potential entry into the inter-confederation play-offs can somehow be attained at the end of this trying period.
Ali shook up his team with five changes, the most prominent seeing Khalil play for the first time since February 20 because of a calf complaint. For Australia, coach Ange Postecoglou stuck with the 3-4-3 formation which misfired during last week’s uninspired 1-1 stalemate against Iraq.
Recent history against the UAE favoured the Socceroos. A late header from veteran forward Tim Cahill earned a 1-0 victory in September, while a 2-0 success in Newcastle two years ago had gained entry to the Asian Cup’s semi-finals.
The sides exchanged possession in a frenetic start, lacking true purpose. Set-pieces were to be key.
Melbourne Victory creator James Troisi – once of Juventus – swung in a sixth-minute corner from which Irvine was granted complete freedom to head home a debut international goal in nine appearances, off Al Ahli right-back Abdulaziz Sanqour’s chest.
Omar Abdulrahman had been slammed for his peripheral display in Al Ain against the Samurai Blue. But a 30-yard free-kick was smartly pushed away by Valencia-owned goalkeeper Mathew Ryan.
The half-time whistle sparked a mini-revival. Al Ain winger Mohamed Abdulrahman – surprisingly thrown on in the 38th minute for restored Al Nasr centre midfielder Tariq Ahmed – smashed a rasping effort at Ryan.
But the UAE failed to build momentum. As the second half continued, Australia became
Irvine had also seen a header smartly saved by Al Jazira shot stopper Ali Khaseif, before the resultant corner was nodded in by Leckie for a repeat of his goal against Iraq.
A long path walked with Ali which also included a win at the 2013 Gulf Cup and the joy of the Asian Cup was meant to culminate in a spot at Russia. The UAE can now only dream of such an outcome, with or without their mentor.