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World Cup qualification primary objective for the UAE national team

Expectations have been raised in recent years, with the current generation of players considered the golden ones

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

Mahdi Ali and his United Arab Emirates national team have become accustomed to high pressure scenarios in recent years. Success at last year’s Asian Cup, in which the Emirati side finished third, gave them a grounding in the demands of rigors of elite level international football. Not even that will prepare the UAE for the coming week, though.

It all comes down to two fixtures for the UAE in their efforts to make the 2018 World Cup. Thursday’s clash with Palestine, along with next Tuesday’s game against Saudi Arabia, will determine whether Ali’s side progress to the third round of Asian qualifying. The heat is on.

Everything Ali has done since his appointment has been geared toward qualifying for the World Cup in Russia. While success at the Asian Cup - where the UAE were only knocked out by eventual winners Australia - was an undoubted landmark in the country’s footballing development, but it will count for nothing if qualification for 2018 isn’t secured. The World Cup is still the ultimate objective.

Clear progress has been made with Ali at the helm, with the UAE now consistent winners in Asian football circles. Expectations have been raised in recent years, with this generation of players considered a golden one in the context of the country’s history in the sport. Those expectations now place World Cup qualification as the primary - and only - objective. Ali is under pressure to deliver.

The odds aren’t exactly in his favor though. Realistically, the UAE must claim three points against Palestine on Thursday and back it up with another win over Saudi Arabia if they are to advance to the next round of qualification. Given the latter’s standing as group table-toppers, it will prove a tough task.

The UAE will be without their leading striker for the double-header as well. Any jubilation drawn from Friday’s 6-1 friendly thumping of Bangladesh was soon dispelled by news that Ali Mabkhout had sustained a torn hamstring, sidelining him for the World Cup qualifiers against Palestine and Saudi Arabia.

As the national team’s top scorer - with 29 goals to his name - Mabkhout will certainly be missed, with Ali in need of another frontman to fill the void left by the Al Jazira striker. Of course, the UAE can still call on quality in the form of Ahmed Khalil (Asian player of the year for 2015) and Ahmed Ali, who it is hoped will provide the firepower needed to secure six points from a possible six.

'Golden generation'

An even greater onus could fall on Omar Abdulrahman, though. The playmaker has long been heralded as the poster-boy of the UAE’s golden generation, impressing on a global stage at last year’s Asian Cup. At his best he is as good as anyone in the continent and his country needs him in top form this week.

This could be his masterpiece. With Mabkhout missing, he will be the one charged with finding a way through both Palestinian and Saudi Arabian defenses, and consequently a route to the World Cup in two years. If the UAE make it to Russia they will most likely have Abdulrahman to thank for it. The next week could come to define his national team legacy.

Given the size of the task ahead of them, and the rivalry that has come to dominate Gulf football in recent times, it might be tempting to look ahead to next week’s clash with Saudi Arabia in anticipation of a winner takes all encounter.

But it should be kept in mind that Thursday’s match against Palestine could prove a hurdle. The UAE struggled to a goalless draw in Al Ram and will come up against a well-organized outfit once more this week. The stakes are of course higher this time. With so much on the line the next week will be a test of the UAE’s World Cup credentials in every possible way.