The difference in quality between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is paper thin, yet in
terms of grit, resilience and experience the gap might as well be a gaping chasm.
A 3-0 defeat might well look disastrous but, in truth, three moments of genuine class separated the two teams – Fahad Al Muwallad, Nawaf Al Abed and Yehya Al Shehri’s finishes were right out of the top drawer.
It could quite easily have been Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil scoring goals of last night’s ilk. But the one glaring void that exists between the two Gulf rivals is game management and the inability of the UAE to capitalise when in the ascendancy.
This was clearly evident in last Thursday’s nerve-shredding 3-1 triumph against minnows Thailand. Leading 2-0 just after half-time the Whites allowed their opponents back into the game and only Ahmed Khalil’s injury-time strike brought them a barely-deserved three points. It spoke volumes that the War Elephants were thrashed 4-0 by lowly Iraq yesterday.
Last night it was evident too. Abdulaziz Haikal came in for injured Al Jazira defender Mohamed Fawzi – who typified the hosts’ second-half dip in performance last week – at right-back. Haikal fared little better and the last two games serve to highlight how much Mohamed Ahmed is missed.
Haikal was guilty of indecision in the first half when he beat the offside trap but lashed an effort from an impossible angle into the side netting rather than wait for support.
In the second, his error led to the killer second Saudi goal. Naively trying to turn on the halfway line he conceded possession and, seconds later, Nawaf Al Abed curled the ball home to end the contest.
Theoretically, the UAE now possess a squad that can count on big game experience. They have played in Gulf Cups, Olympic Games, Asian Cups and the AFC Champions League with their clubs – yet are not utilising this vital knowledge enough when it really matters in crucial moments such as the last two qualifiers.
Mahdi Ali has a momentous task to lift his players after this defeat but he must keep in mind that all hope is not lost – far from it. Yes, the margin and manner of defeat will cause distress, but this was an impressive performance for 73 minutes.
The UAE’s drought in and against Saudi goes on yet Ali’s side showed plenty of signs of improvement in the face of criticism that they crumble when it comes to competing against their great rivals.
Whatever their previous record both in the Kingdom and against the Green Falcons, the UAE can no longer be accused of lacking the mental fortitude when facing their Gulf neighbours, although playing well for all but 17 minutes is far from adequate.
Their ferocious first-half performance was swashbuckling and bold. Talisman Abdulrahman at the heart of each foray, while centrebacks Mohanad Salem and Ismail Ahmed were totems of strength at the back.
After four games the UAE sit fourth in Group B, four points off Saudi at the top of the table with six games remaining. They have to face their three main rivals again but two of those games – against Japan and Saudi – will be at home.
Ali was keen to stress before this result that qualification would go down to the wire and it is important that he and his players remember that.
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