UAE coach boss Mahdi Ali has defended his curious decision to stick with Ahmed Khalil and substitute goalscorer Ali Mabkhout for the second Gulf Cup game in succession, insisting the Al Ahli forward's "industry" makes him an invaluable presence on the pitch.
The holders rocketed to a two-goal lead against Kuwait on Monday night thanks to a pair of exquisite finishes from the former, prior to being pegged back to a damaging 2-2 draw.
Interchanging wonderfully with Omar Abdulrahman, the Al Jazira frontman first nonchalantly chipped in then stroked home a first-time shot from the edge of the penalty box that was measured to perfection.
This display was in stark contrast to Khalil's. The 23 year old stumbled over a first-half chance and fired a number of free-kicks wastefully into the wall during the Group B clash that leaves the Whites almost certainly requiring victory against 2013 final opponents Iraq to make the semi-finals.
Eyebrows were raised when Mabkhout made way in the second half at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium, Khalil remaining like he did during the goalless opener against Oman.
The 23 year old struck a hat-trick in the unofficial warm-up triumph against Lebanon on November 6.
But while Mabkhout has five goals in eight Arabian Gulf Leagues appearances this term, Khalil has registered only one in the same period.
"Ismail Matar has just returned from injury and is not ready technically to participate, so I did not pay him in front of Kuwait," Ali explained.
"Ahmed Khalil tried to register and had the chances in the first half.
"The second half was very tight, there were no spaces where we could play in front of the Kuwaiti defence.
"Khalil's industry contributed to the second goal. Striker's sometimes have an important role to perform through hard work and it is not simply about the goals they record.
"I hope that Khalil is back to shake the net in the next match against Iraq."
The UAE put on a much-improved performance against group leader Kuwait, the switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation freeing superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman.
Issues remain at the back, two sloppy goals conceded to make Thursday's decider against the Lions of Mesopotamia a winner-takes-all event.
Ali expected his troops to rise to this challenge at the imposing King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, avoiding a repeat of the group-stage exit in 2009 that followed the UAE's only previous Gulf Cup triumph.
He said: "We are left with one game to go in front of Iraq. We will equip the players before the game in order to win and qualify for the semi-final.
"It is good that we do not need to help from anyone, as a win will be enough to qualify. The confrontation will be difficult for Iraq, who have no no choice but to win.
"Even if we had beaten Kuwait and got to to four points, this result would not have been enough for us to qualify for the semi-final.
"There is no coach that does not like to win. We tried to get the three points, but we needed a bit more luck – I'm satisfied with the performance of the players."
The UAE have it all to do to continue their Gulf Cup title defence beyond the group stage after two goals in two minutes from Kuwait saw the Blues claim a valuable 2-2 draw.
Ali Mabkhout's wonderfully-executed brace looked to have ignited the champions campaign before Badar Al Mutawa took centre stage. The attacking midfielder first set up Yousef Al Sulaiman's header, before striking high into the goal himself from 20 yards.
The UAE now almost certainly require victory against Iraq in Thursday's final match to stand any hope of avoiding a repeat of the
early exit in 2009 that followed their previous Khaleej triumph.
Coach Mahdi Ali promised changes following the stalemate with Oman. He was true to his word, with Walid Abbas replacing Al Ahli team-mate Abdelaziz Haikal at left-back.
The biggest alteration was in shape, a 4-4-2 that denied control in the opener ditched for the better-fitting 4-2-3-1.
From being diligent but barely threatening on the wing, Omar Abdulrahman was placed at the heart of matters in the centre. The alteration breathed life into a side which has struggled for goals since August.
The Al Ain playmaker was sensational in the first half, playing with a sharpness and vibrancy not expected from someone for whom Friday's match was his first competitive outing since September 30.
Those in attendance at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium saw a masterclass from the Arabian Gulf's true superstar.
Mabkhout was the main benefactor of the coach's decision, his expertly-taken brace coming from situations with Omar Abdulrahman's imprint all over them.
The latter won the ball in midfield and played a perfectly-weighted pass that sent the Al Jazira forward clear on 36 minutes. A check-back and stunning lofted chip drew huge celebrations, the pressure of a run in which the UAE had scored once in six official matches eased.
Ismail Al Hammadi skewed wide with the goalkeeper out of position soon after, Omar Abdulrahman again scything the Kuwaitis apart.
The Whites weren't as accommodating a second time. Omar and Amer Abdulrahman's interplay on the box drew breath, Mabkhout's first-time curled finish bound for the back of the net from the moment he let fly.
This was surely the moment that the holder's Gulf Cup campaign was to receive lift off. Instead, they came crashing down to Earth.
Centre-backs Mohanad Salem and Mohamed Ahmed looked like total strangers rather than club and international team-mates when they allowed striker Al Sulaiman a free header to provide hope.
Al Mutawa was provider then, 120 second later he was the main attraction. The attacking midfielder spotted a gap on the edge of the Whites' penalty box, charging forward and letting fly from 20 yards.
Goalkeeper Ali Khaseif did not cover himself in glory, leaden-footed and jumping with the wrong hand as the UAE were stunned.
A classic seemed on the cards but little happened after the break. Defeat was too bleak a prospect for the UAE to push, while Kuwait were fully satisfied with a point after beating Iraq 1-0 in their opener.
Set-pieces were the only real avenue for either side, the UAE's sterile possession creating very little from that point. Salem failed to connect properly with a header from a corner, while Musaed El Enazi found the side-netting with a free-kick for the Blues.
Mahdi Ali is a coach whose reputation is as much staked on loyalty as it is the impressive results he has gained throughout his international career.
A generation of players have risen with him through the youth ranks of the UAE, on to global recognition at the London 2012 Olympics and glory at the 2013 Gulf Cup.
But as with most paternal relationships, there comes a point when the bonds have to be broken. Winds of change are afoot in the Whites camp following the goalless Group B opener against Oman.
The uninspired performance was simply not acceptable for a team graced by several of the Arabian Gulf’s finest talents.
Speaking at yesterday’s pre-match press conference before tonight’s clash with Kuwait, Ali shook up his squad with a public vow to re-shape his starting line-up.
Such words are out of character for a man who rarely deviates from the norm. Inaction now, however, would lead to an embarrassing group-stage exit in Riyadh.
It is not like they haven’t been warned. Four bore draws, a thumping defeat to Uzbekistan and narrow win against Lebanon had been registered in the build-up.
Once the competitive action began against the Red Warriors, the tempo never lifted above ponderous.
Centre midfielders Amer Abdulrahman and Khamis Esmail were unable to keep their foot on the ball and dictate the agenda.
Too many wayward long balls, the easiest option open to players temporarily devoid of imagination, were punted up the park. That their targets were front men Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil saw the fault lines grow.
Unable to feed off each other, runners from deep are required to ensure possession isn’t lost every time in the final third. Instead, Amer Abdulrahman and Esmail remained rooted in midfield, cement blocks on their feet.
The blame doesn’t travel as far as the wingers. Omar Abdulrahman put in an impressive shift considering it was his first competitive match since September 30, while Ismail Al Hammadi twice inspired phenomenal saves from Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Second-half substitutes Habib Fardan and Ismail Matar saw a late improvement at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.
The latter’s integration is academic, the only issue being whether he is fit enough to start following a lengthy knee injury. Fardan’s potential integration seems harder to pinpoint.
The 24-year-old has struggled to find his feet since switching to Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ahli this summer.
Despite earning a reputation as a centre midfielder of true promise at Al Nasr, he has often been shunted to left midfield by club and country.
A victim of his own versatility. Personnel changes are guaranteed, although a much-needed switch in formation is less certain. Ali is welded to the idea of using two strikers.
This is where Matar could provide the ideal solution. With more than 100 caps, his game intelligence is unrivalled.
The Al Wahda man could fill the huge chasm between midfield and attack, his potential interchanges with Omar Abdulrahman mouth-watering. Whatever way he chooses to go, envious resources are available to Ali. Now has come the time to use them.