The Dutch coach’s new-look side – a mix of exciting youth and experienced old heads – had their struggles, especially early on, when they fell behind to Syafiq Ahmad’s header with half a minute on the clock. The hosts started rapidly at a raucous Stadium Nasional Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur, but a brace either side of the break from lethal Ali Mabkhout – who reached half a century of goals from just 80 caps – secured a hard-fought and deserving win.
Ahmad’s early gut punch ensured the Malayan Tigers a roaring start, Al Wahda right-back Mohammed Al Menhali guilty of ball-watching as the Johor Darul Ta’zim attacker powered in.
The visitors gradually grew into the game though and despite Mabkhout’s hesitant effort brushing the post following Wahda wideman Khalil Ibrahim’s delicious centre and the 28-year-old being left frustrated by a yellow card for a foul on Brendan Gan after the same player had escaped punishment for a headbutt, he was rewarded.
Mabkhout levelled two minutes before the interval when his forceful header could not be kept out after diligent play and a fine cross was delivered by Al Menhali.
They were the better side after that and Mabkhout proved the difference when he put the Whites 2-1 ahead late on with a typically composed finish.
A BIT OF MABKHOUT MAGIC
Since finishing third at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia – where they beat reigning champions Japan in the quarter-finals on their way to claiming a spot on the podium – the UAE have stuttered in terms of development.
It could even be argued they’ve regressed. Ignore the fact they’re ranked 65th by FIFA – up from 79th a year ago – as they’ve failed to hit the heights on the big stage since claiming third place following a 3-2 victory over Iraq in Newcastle five years ago.
At January’s Asian Cup on home soil, for example, they were porous and failed to capture the imagination under the guidance of unimaginative Alberto Zaccheroni. Their presence in the last eight was an aberration.
But while the poster boy of football for the Emirates, Omar Abdulrahman, has lost some of his credibility amid a move to Saudi Arabia and another serious injury, while the nation has lost a lot of thrust following a litany of uninspiring and poorly planned coaching appointments, one player has remained a beacon of light.
We’ve waxed lyrical on countless occasions about Mabkhout’s goalscoring prowess and all-round talent as a complete striker, but the Al Jazira predator proved his enduring worth to the Whites in the red-hot temperature of Kuala Lumpur.
The 28-year-old rose expertly to power in a header from Al Menhali’s hanging cross in the 29th minute that home stopper Farizal Marlias clawed at but was powerless to prevent crossing the line. It was his 50th international goal. He then pounced on a failure to cut out a long ball forward by racing on and sliding his side 2-1 ahead with 15 minutes to go.
It was a goal that drew him level with Ahmed Khalil on 51 for the UAE. Iconic Adnan Al Talyani is now just one ahead. History awaits.
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
Out with the old and in with the new is the familiar saying, but UAE fans might rightly have been harking for the tried and tested in terms of defence after conceding so early.
The bedrock of national sides for the best part of the last decade have been built on a solid foundation of almost an exclusive Al Ain defence. Ismail Ahmed, Mohanad Salem, Mohammed Ahmed and goalkeeper Khalid Essa have often been the first names on Whites’ team-sheets – a trusted launchpad from which to build forward.
Van Marwijk went with a new methodology – bar Essa between the sticks – as young Jazira duo Mohammed Al Attas, 22, and Khalifa Al Hammadi, 20, formed the central partnership, flanked either side by elder statesmen Al Menhali and Walid Abbas (28 and 34 respectively).
And he might have been having second thoughts about his strategy half a minute into the game, even though the kids had very little to do with the concession of the opening goal. Abbas was not at fault down the left but a cross came into the centre and Wahda stalwart Al Menhali, winning only his second cap, was badly caught out as Ahmad out-jumped him and headed home.
After that, however, the back four settled and established themselves. Al Attas and Al Hammadi both went to ground in the box, perhaps giving their coach a heart-stopping moment, but the two challenges were expertly executed and they both grew in confidence thereafter.
Has a nation found a new partnership? Too early to tell, but the signs are encouraging.
GOLDEN BOY CAN RECOVER HIS GLOW
Despite Mabkhout’s soaring value to the UAE, it is Abdulrahman who remains the golden child of the Golden Generation. And the 27-year-old – now a Jazira team-mate – entered the fray just before Mabkhout’s game-clinching second, for a first official senior cap in 10 months.
He didn’t catch the eye besides his familiar frizzy hairdo, but his return is a big boost to Van Marwijk, who despite his stature and coaching track record, will be keenly aware just how much of a precious a commodity a fit and firing Amoory can be to the cause.
He was a peripheral figure but showed a few trademark feather-like touches and several crisp passes, enough to serve as an indicator as to how much his presence might grow as the qualifying campaign progresses.
If his decaying knee stands up to the rigours once domestic football resumes and he gets back to his best at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, it will be good news for both club and country.
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