Sunday’s Gulf Cup semi-final loss for the UAE was an exhibition in agony. Two goals down after 22 minutes, playmaker
Omar Abdulrahman injured and a breathtaking comeback amounting to nothing moments after parity had been secured.
What’s worrying for coach Mahdi Ali is that the discomfort looks set to continue. On the evidence of the last fortnight in Riyadh, all signs point to an even more difficult time at the Asian Cup in January. Circumstance and scheduling, rather than matters on the pitch, are to blame.
The upward curve enjoyed by the UAE seemed poised to reach its apex Down Under. A side buoyed by prodigal talent, their understanding honed alongside throughout various age groups.
The wheels have slowly started to come off in recent months.
Watching the Whites first hand in the Saudi capital, you could not miss their skill and understanding. What has been gradually eroded has been the magic that characterised the London 2012 Olympic campaign and victory at the 2013 Gulf Cup.
Inspiration requires energy to reach fruition. Drained players cannot be expected to excel.
The six matches prior to Khaleej 22 contained only one victory, a 3-2 success against Lebanon in an unofficial friendly.
No tangible improvement came in Saudi Arabia. Highlights were in the opening 30 minutes of the 2-2 Group B draw with Kuwait, as well as the second-half against the hosts when Ahmed Khalil claimed an unforeseen brace.
Otherwise, the fare has been limited. Ali Mabkhout magic and a defensive error secured a 2-0 victory against a crestfallen Iraq,
while the goalless opener with Oman was turgid.
Tired legs and mind are to blame.
The vast majority of the 23- man squad taken to the Kingdom embarked on a pair of lengthy European tours during the summer.
The June double-header in Switzerland which saw defeat to Armenia and victory against Georgia came straight on the back of the 2013/14 Arabian Gulf League.
Three weeks prior to the current season were taken up by a training camp featuring three draws against Norway, Lithuania and Paraguay.
Either side of this, eight members of the current selection took part in Al Ain’s AFC Champions League quarter-final and semifinals with Al Ittihad and Al Hilal.
Rather than mix up the squad, the best-available players travelled. The only visible experimentation came in October’s 4-0 friendly loss to Uzbekistan, days after a full-strength team drew 0-0 with Australia.
This damaging misuse of resources was exacerbated by something outside of Ali’s control. The decision to piggyback the Gulf
and Asian Cups has placed incredible strain on the domestic scene.
Eight rounds of the AGL had to be crammed in prior to the former, with five rounds in less than a month to come before the latter.
Clubs pay the players’ wages and they will rightly demand maximum commitment prior to heading off to Australia in late December.
Appropriate rest and recuperation are impossible.
All teams go through slumps during their developmental cycle. And with an average age cited at 24 by Ali, there should be more to come.
The frustration comes from the fact this low point seemed avoidable. A herculean effort is required to avoid disappointment Down
This was a night of intense pain for the UAE. Their Gulf Cup crown wrestled away moments after an uplifting comeback had been secured, their Asian Cup hopes in doubt following injury to Omar Abdulrahman.
Ahmed Khalil had appeared to be the most unlikely of heroes, his second-half brace securing parity, that painfully, was not to last.
Mahdi Ali’s men were culpable in defeat to hosts Saudi Arabia. For the second time in less than a week, a brace of quick-fire goals were sloppily conceded.
Those efforts from Nasser Al Shamrani and Nawaf Al Abid gave Saudi Arabia a 2-0 half-time lead.
Khalil’s double provided the allure of added time. This was all too quickly wrestled away. Salem Al Dawsari danced around the edge of the box and fired in with four minutes to play to secure a 3-2 win for the Green Falcons.
The absence of injured playmaker Omar Abdulrahman from much of the action was worrying. The injury problems which have severely disrupted his domestic campaign re-appeared as he hobbled off in clear discomfort on 26 minutes.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) November 23, 2014
Any further damage to his knee could see him miss January’s defining assignment in Australia.
Against Kuwait in the group stage, the UAE were already two goals to the good when calamity struck. No such luxury was available at a disappointingly half-full King Fahd International Stadium.
Saudi Arabia have been questioned at every turn on home soil, coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro the main target of ire. Redemption is now close at hand for the Spaniard following last night’s heart-racing 3-2 win, his team fired up by the criticism received.
On the evidence at hand, Wednesday’s opponents Qatar should provide little threat. A first Gulf Cup title in 11 years is close.
The grey Riyadh skies provided poor omen yesterday, a thunderous afternoon downpour greeting many of the travelling Emirati supporters.
Their mood was hardly lifted by a disastrous opening half an hour. Khalil first provided frustration by not reacting to a chipped Omar Abdulrahman ball to the back post.
This pain was increased when right-back Saeed Al Mowallad was given the freedom of their half to cross, the predatory Nasser Al Shamrani ghosting behind Mohamed Ahmed to convert.
A lack of UAE pressure defined this critical spell. The punishment was doubled three minutes later.
Right-back Abdelaziz Sanqour dawdled upon a bouncing ball, Al Shamrani sticking out a leg to play in winger Al Abid to crash in a low strike from 12 yards.
The UAE seemed defeated foes. They then exhibited the fight of champions to get themselves back into a helter-skelter contest.
Amer Abdulrahman curled a deep free-kick on 53 minutes which was flicked in artfully by Khalil for his first goal of the tournament.
The Al Ahli man’s place had been questioned in Saudi; he had looked a pale resemblance of the man who was top scorer on the way to the title in 2013.
He excelled with just more than 10 minutes to play, controlling expertly and slotting home following an Ismail Matar cross.
There appeared to be only winner from that point, the Whites with momentum on their side. This did not countenance the ever-increasing Saudi spirit.
Too little pressure was applied to attacking midfielder Al Dawsari on the edge of the box. Two challenges skipped, he fired in low.
The King Fahd erupted. There was to be no more fight backs from there.
The UAE will be taking on an entire nation tonight when the fight for a Gulf Cup final spot begins against hosts Saudi Arabia.
A huge test is being billed for the Whites versus opponents that have improved steadily under coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro and boast the imposing King Fahd International Stadium as their fortress. But the feeling cannot be dismissed that it will be Green Falcons running the gauntlet, rather than the holders.
Experience football in the Kingdom and you cannot fail to miss the all-consuming effect it has on its people and media. Passions run high in a country that takes the sport so very seriously.
A chorus of car horns greet celebrated victories, scores risking their lives by hanging out of windows to wave the national flag as they race through the bumpy Riyadh roadways at high speed.
Each press conference is an interrogation, the highest standards demanded for a nation that is both the Arabian Gulf’s most populous and successful in international competition.
Intense debates between 10-man panels run late into the night, Khaleej 22 and the hopes of the hosts the hottest topic of conversation.
The minutia of every choice made by Lopez Caro is analysed, to often heated effect. Rather unfairly, the ex-Real Madrid boss has long-since extinguished the credit earned by an all-conquering Asian Cup qualification campaign.
Critics’ barbs dominate each increasingly-tetchy media event, only the sight of veteran captain Saud Kariri lifting the trophy on Wednesday evening will grant acceptance.
This sense of expectation is all too palpable inside the King Fahd.
Certainly, the Spaniard was left under no illusions during an awful second half of the tournament opener that saw dreary Qatar claim a 1-1 draw. Whistles echoed around the stadium at full-time, the disappointment extending to the second Group A game against Bahrain when barely half a stadium’s worth of supporters turned out.
Perform well and partisan encouragement is guaranteed, though when things go wrong there is nowhere to hide.
UAE coach Mahdi Ali was quizzed about the power of the King Fahd crowd after progression to the last-four was secured by Thursday’s 2-0 win against Iraq.
Journalists expecting to receive a deferential answer were left disappointed when he countered that a full stadium could in fact help his team.
An early goal from the UAE tonight will turn the atmosphere mutinous. Get on the front foot, and a collapse of morale should be enforced.
The UAE have been far too supine thus far in Saudi Arabia, with one noticeable exception. For the first 30 minutes against Kuwait, the side that thrilled in Bahrain during the previous Gulf Cup reappeared in technicolour.
Omar Abdulrahman looked every inch the superstar, Amer Abdulrahman was omnipresent while Ali Mabkhout finished two chances with aplomb. The vibrancy died off as Kuwait fought back to 2-2 and was missing entirely during the often-interminable triumph against Iraq.
Rediscover the verve of the opening skirmishes from the Kuwait clash and Saudi Arabia will feel the pressure of an entire nation crashing down on them.