A dream this big was worth fighting for, after all.
In the absence of waylaid superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and with long-held hopes of making World Cup 2018 on life support, goals of staggering quality from Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil saw off resurgent Saudi Arabia and kept the UAE, by the slenderest of margins, in contention.
Rampant Al Jazira front man Mabkhout – who would worryingly later trundle off with a groin problem – channelled Luka Modric and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a delicate touch and stretched limb saw him produce an immediate, and memorable, equaliser to visiting winger Nawaf Al Abed’s 20th-minute penalty.
Even better was to come on the hour mark as his strike partner, now for club and country, smashed in a swerving thunderbolt from 30 yards to go level at the top of the global scoring charts with 16 goals during qualification.
Ultimately, a performance detailed by such composure and commitment can – in all probability – be filed away as belated. The inquest into why paternal coach Mahdi Ali was allowed to limp on for so long and replacement Edgardo Bauza given such little time to make an impact with the ‘Golden Generation’ can wait for another day.
The Whites have hope, small but still tangible. This is more than they could have expected after their aspirations seemingly evaporated into a steamy Bangkok night in June when the Argentine supremo’s debut ended in a deflating 1-1 draw against bottom-placed Thailand.
The odds remain stacked against them when the third-and-final round winds up in Jordan against eliminated Iraq next Tuesday. A turnaround in goal difference of at least eight must be achieved, with results elsewhere in Group B going their way.
But stranger things have happened. Few would have thought they could come behind against the Saudis, regional giants they last felled a decade ago – with this bruising run including nine losses and one draw.
The Green Falcons wings have been clipped by this unexpected reversal. Hopes of an automatic return to the globe’s premier sporting event for the first time since 2006 were probably ended at a half-full Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday night.
Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk will head the interested observers when Japan and Australia meet in Saitama on Thursday.
The portents for this enlivening result were not present an hour before kick-off when the expected absence of Riyadh-born ‘Amoory’ through an ankle knock was confirmed.
It was left to 117-cap veteran Ismail Matar of Al Wahda to fill the void in a new 4-3-1-2 formation.
This shape fitted perfectly for the UAE, bringing out the best in their deadly strikers while providing a sound base – long absent under Ali’s outmoded 4-4-2 – in midfield.
But a strong start received a blow when sloppy play by Al Nasr midfielder Tariq Ahmed led to Al Abed being dragged down, under minimal contact, by right-back Mohammed Fawzi in the box.
The man who missed last week’s AFC Champions League quarter-final between his Al Hilal and Al Ain at the Hazza because of heart palpitations was unmoved as he calmly slotted in.
Relief for the second-placed visitors was to be brief. Mabkhout magically trapped a hopeful punt by Tariq Ahmed, swivelling and instantly finding the bottom corner from just inside the box.
The Saudis just could not get going, 16-goal qualifying goal getter Mohammad Al Sahlawi completing a trio of missed opportunities when he dragged wide.
The interval did little to change the flow and the UAE were to unforgettably go ahead through Khalil’s rocket.
Route one was the response from the increasingly-desperate Saudis. But led by the redoubtable Al Ain centre-back Mohanad Salem, not even the injury-time dismissal of left-back Mahmoud Khamis could deny them a deserved and encouraging victory.
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