The UAE squad landed in Jordan on Sunday amid the continuing absence of star player Omar Abdulrahman, as preparations for their free-scoring mission to make World Cup 2018 kicked up another gear.
The Whites will play Iraq on Tuesday when the third-and-final-qualifying round reaches its crescendo. Their essential 2-1 win against high-flying Saudi Arabia last week – gained without the injured 2016 AFC Player of the Year – means they remain, just, in the hunt for a second-ever participation.
Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza drilled his troops in the evening at Amman International Stadium knowing they must thrash eliminated opponents, hope Australia and/or the Saudis lose, plus elicit swings of either six or eight in goal difference if they are to gate crash Group B’s top three.
A 24-player party made the three-hour flight to the capital. Confirmation of the expected news that ‘Amoory’ would remain in Barcelona and recuperate from an ankle problem was provided before departure, but his brother Khaled – a left-back for Al Ain – made the journey as replacement for the banned Mahmoud Khamis of Al Nasr.
Suspensions have also hit influential Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club anchorman Khamis Esmail and prolific Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout – who produced a memorable leveller last week in Al Ain for his 35th goal from 52 internationals.
The Under-23 ranks have been raided for promising substitutes Mohammed Abdulbasit of Al Wahda and Ahmed Al Attas of Jazira.
The UAE’s unlikely bid to make next summer’s tournament in Russia will hinge on whether the third-placed Socceroos can be upset by bottom-placed Thailand in Melbourne or if Japan’s success last Thursday in securing a sixth-successive finals berth will quell their desire to defeat second-placed Saudi in Jeddah.
The Pro League Committee (PLC) have confirmed that the Arabian Gulf Super Cup between Al Jazira and Al Wahda will now be played in January 2018 following a request from the match organisers to postpone the fixture.
Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira and President’s Cup winners Al Wahda were scheduled to meet on September 15 at Cairo’s June 30 Stadium but the Abu Dhabi sides will now meet in the middle of the season.
No exact date has been finalised but Mohammed Kamel, chairman of Presentation Sports, who are responsible for organising the match, said the reason for postponement was to ensure they can deliver a spectacle football fans can enjoy.
“Our desire to deliver a highly- successful event is the main reason for rescheduling,” he said. “We will give our best to produce a match that meets the expectations of football fans in both countries.
“We are hoping to organise a more special edition and work hand in hand with the PLC and the clubs to produce a match that pleases everyone.
“Our perspective of the match is to promote Emirati football, which is why we preferred to reschedule the match because of some organisational and marketing issues. We are preparing a lot of surprises for Emirati and Egyptian fans”.
Yousef Mohammed Rasool Al Khoory, vice-president of the PLC executive office, revealed both teams agreed to the change, having held talks with Presentation Sports in the last week.
“We had a successful experience with Presentation Sports last season when they organised the Super Cup between Al Ahli and Al Jazira in Cairo and the match was a huge success,” said Al Khoory.
“These matches help expand the fan base of Emirati football and attract Egyptian fans in numbers to learn about the Arabian Gulf League and subsequently encourage Egyptian expats in UAE to follow our domestic competitions in the future.”
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.