Can UAE fill voids in crunch match against Saudi Arabia?

This UAE team is hailed as a golden generation of talent, but what will that count for if they fail to make it to the World Cup?

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

It all comes down to this for the United Arab Emirates national team. Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia is a must-win match for Mahdi Ali’s side if they are make it to Russia in two years time.

This UAE team is hailed as a golden generation of talent, but what will that count for if they fail to make it to the World Cup? Victory over Palestine last week has given them the platform, but now they need three more points. It’s win or bust. Here is where the match will be won and lost.

Can the UAE fill the void left by Ali Mabkhout?

Ali’s primary concern ahead of Tuesday’s match against Saudi Arabia regards the fitness of his top goalscorer. Mabkhout picked up a hamstring injury in an Al Jazira match against Al Hilal two weeks ago, missing the win over Palestine last week. The striker has 29 goals to his name for the UAE national team, but his loss was absorbed in a 2-0 victory on Thursday.

The UAE might not get so lucky against a higher caliber of opposition, though. They must take whatever chances they create and without Mabkhout that task would be made all the more difficult. The Al Jazira striker might still make the match, but even if he does play his level might have dipped as a consequence.

Will Omar Abdulrahman be given the space to hit top form?

This UAE team is Omar Abdulrahman. The playmaker is the poster boy of Ali’s side, with almost every attacking move flowing through him. When Abdulrahman plays well, so does the rest of his team. However, opposition teams are quick to recognise this.

Opposition defenders know that by denying Abdulrahman space around the edge of the box, making it difficult for the ball to be played to the playmaker, they can stop the UAE. It’s something Saudi Arabia will surely attempt to do on Tuesday. So can Abdulraham counter that in any way? Will he receive the space he needs to thrive?

Do the UAE have an inferiority complex against Saudi Arabia?

The omens for Ali’s side are not especially good heading into this must-win match. The UAE have lost their last seven games against Saudi Arabia, with their last win coming at the 2007 Gulf Cup. The Emiratis appear to have something of inferiority complex when it comes to clashes with their rivals.

So can they overcome that mindset when it matters most this week? It will prove a tough task, with the Saudis in good form at the moment. They have surged since the appointment of Bert Van Marwijk last summer and are now seen as the predominant side in the Gulf. That could change with just one result, though.

Will the win over Palestine provide any momentum?

This is the second litmus test the UAE have faced in the space of a week, with the match against Palestine last Thursday just as pivotal as the one looming on Tuesday. Without three points in that game Ali’s side would have been counted out of World Cup qualification before Saudi Arabia’s flight could even land in Abu Dhabi.

So can the UAE take momentum from that win? Beating Palestine didn’t just give the Emiratis a platform in terms of the result, but also in terms of the collective mindset. The UAE will take to the field on Tuesday in the knowledge that they can cope with such a high pressure scenario.

Can the UAE’s defence hold out?

Whilst Ali’s side are undoubtedly at their best in the final third, they have also found strength at the back throughout this World Cup qualification campaign. In fact, the UAE haven’t conceded more than once in a single match since the last time they faced Saudi Arabia back in October - when they lost 2-1.

That’s not to say that the Emirati side are especially tight at the back, given that they have kept just one clean sheet in their last four matches, but it’s their control that makes it difficult for opposition sides to score batches against them. The UAE could certainly use some control on Tuesday.