COMMENT: Mahdi Ali shouldn’t solely shoulder the blame

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Mahdi Ali

Trading on past successes, underperforming players, outdated tactics and disgruntled supporters. This time, we’re not talking about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.

Instead, this is the situation UAE boss Mahdi Ali found himself in as he did what the Frenchman is yet to do and belatedly called time on his unravelling four-and-a-half year reign as UAE boss Tuesday.

Yet this represents an overdue decision which should have been taken long ago by his masters at the UAE Football Association.

A failure to make the uncomfortable choice to relieve a legend of his post has led to an avoidable situation in which a ‘Golden Generation’ looks set to miss a rare shot at the World Cup.

The failures by Ali in the last 18 months are plentiful. But they are not his alone. The 51-year-old stepped aside with his nation’s mission to make Russia 2018 on life support after a 2-0 defeat to Australia.

This performance was not as wretched as the reversal which preceded it against Japan, yet it was by no means befitting of a side who should have been desperately searching for a positive result. Ali’s place in the pantheon of UAE football greats is assured.

Nurturing a promising group all the way up from success at the AFC U-19 Championship in 2008, to making the London 2012 Olympics, winning the 2013 Gulf Cup and finishing third at the 2015 Asian Cup guarantees a respectful spot in the history books.

Nevermind the fact that under his tutelage, Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman claimed the 2015 and 2016 AFC Player of the Year gongs. But a place in the future should never be assured when the present situation is so sub-par.

All Ali’s long-term faults were on show against the Socceroos. The obsolete 4-4-2 formation denied valuable possession, familiar faces such as Al Ahli right-back Abdulaziz Sanqour stayed in the XI despite awful form and too much responsibility was placed on ‘Amoory’.

Hot prospects such as the Al Jazira pair of Mohammed Jamal and Khalfan Mubarak were either left at home or on the bench, acolyte Khalil was thrust into action even though he admitted he was unfit and a failure to respond to the physical demands of international football caused two unmarked set-pieces to be conceded.

A sense is undeniable that players used to hearing the same voice had long stopped listening. Simply, the achievements of two years ago Down Under represented the zenith of this regime.

The degeneration was in evidence during a fitful second-round qualification process. The alarm bells only grew louder last October with a humiliating 3-0 defeat in Saudi Arabia.

Action should have been taken at that moment or even, as Ali revealed in Sydney, when he originally handed in his notice before November’s uninspired 2-0 victory against Iraq. But the UAE FA, again, refused to act.

The governing body’s stasis is questionable when you consider the fact that, more than likely, this incredible squad’s finest years are set to go to waste. For a group all presently aged around 26, Russia 2018 was the tournament to secure the nation’s second-ever entry into sport’s grandest event.

With only 1.4 million Emiratis, such opportunities rarely come about. Even the World Cup’s increase to 48 teams in 2026 does not guarantee participation with competitiveness growing across Asia. There are 77 days until the UAE’s next qualifier.

A right call must be made on who follows, but can the FA be trusted to do it?

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'The team needs change' - Mahdi Ali resigns after Australia defeat

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Mahdi Ali

Coach Mahdi Ali ended his transformative four-and-a-half-year spell in charge of the UAE yesterday with the nation’s hopes of making World Cup 2018 in ruins, revealing a previous bid to resign last year had been rejected.

Headed set-piece goals from Burton Albion midfielder Jackson Irvine and Ingolstadt winger Mathew Leckie were enough to secure a comfortable 2-0 win for Australia in a Group B qualifier in Sydney.

The damaging result left the Whites four points off third spot and its potential route to the inter-confederation play-offs, in the process forcing their 51-year-old boss to immediately announce his exit during a post-match press conference.

Ali had gained success with the ‘Golden Generation’ – which has produced the last two AFC Players of the Year in Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil and Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman – from the Under-19s through to the London 2012 Olympics, also winning the 2013 Gulf Cup and finishing third at the 2015 Asian Cup. But stale selections and tactics had bedevilled a Road to Russia which has regularly featured rumours about an exit.

He said: “I regret my declaration to resign, but the team now needs to change. I spent five years with the team, made a lot of achievements and now it is the time to leave.

“I tried to give everything within my power and I apologise to the public.

“I submitted my resignation before the Iraq match [a 2-0 win in November], but the UAE Football Association insisted on continuing our mission.

“I am satisfied with what was presented during my time with the team. It is a difficult moment in my life and I wished to leave the team in a better condition.

“The coach is part of the team, but there are many other tools that control the conditions.”

The ex-UAE and Ahli midfielder won 40 of his 65 games in charge since August 2012, drawing 10 and losing 15. Previous talk had appeared in November about Ali being talked out of making an exit.

“I can’t deny that the defeats have been really tough,” veteran forward Ismail Matar told beIN Sports. “We could have done better. These are two painful defeats and we have to bear the consequences.”

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WCQ: Australia 2-0 UAE

Matt Monaghan 28/03/2017

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
ascendant.

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.

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