Mahdi Ali, UAE eye another historic night against Japan

A stunning Ali Mabkhout goal, heroic defending by Muhanad Salem and his fellow defenders, a tactical masterclass by coach Mahdi Ali

Ali Khaled
Ali Khaled - Special to Al Arabiya English
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A stunning Ali Mabkhout goal. Heroic defending by Muhanad Salem and his fellow defenders. A tactical masterclass by coach Mahdi Ali. An astonishing “Panenka” penalty by golden boy Omar Abdulrahman in a shootout triumph. The last time the Emirati team met, and beat, Japan, in the quarter-final of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, has gone down as one of the greatest nights in Emirati football history.

On Thursday in Saitama, Japan, the two teams meet for the first time since that memorable night in Sydney, with potentially an even bigger prize at stake. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be looking to kick-start its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign with a positive result against a team it has never beaten in 90 minutes.

The UAE could not have been handed a tougher start to AFC Group B, which concludes in Sept. 2017. Only five days after taking on Japan, the UAE will host Asian Cup Champions Australia in Abu Dhabi.

The opener with Japan is arguably the toughest test Ali’s team have faced, at a qualifying stage, since he took charge of the senior national team in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics. In Australia last year, Japan may have been Asian Cup holders, but at the 63,000-capacity Saitama 2002 Stadium on Thursday, the UAE’s task will be even harder.

Vahid Halilhodžić’s team, which have won 11, drawn four and lost only two - including the final of the four-team Kirin Cup final in June - since the Bosnian took over last year, will have revenge on their minds.

The general consensus is that Japan and Australia are favorites to qualify from the group, leaving the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq to fight for third place and a chance to progress through the play-off route. It is unlikely that the ultra-demanding Ali will see it that way, however, despite not having the most ideal of weeks in the build up to the match.

On Wednesday, the UAE lost 2-0 to North Korea in a friendly match played behind closed doors in Shanghai. The good news is that the defeat comes with the caveat that the UAE played without 10 Al-Nasr and Al-Ain players - including star man Abdulrahman - who were on AFC Champions League duty with their clubs. The bad news is that their absence would have disrupted the team’s preparation at the most crucial of periods.

The coach is known to be an advocate of spending as much time on the training ground as possible, and by and large he got his wish this summer. The UAE recently had a four-week training camp in Spain, during which they played four matches against local sides, winning twice and drawing the other two.

With the full complement of players back in training, all eyes are now on the opening round of fixtures, which include Iraq’s visit to Australia, and Saudi Arabia’s home clash with Thailand.

A win would be a dream result, and though Ali will never declare it in public, he will surely be delighted to return from Japan with a point. Pragmatism will be the order of the day. Beyond that, he will be thankful for home comforts as the UAE entertain Australia at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, where he will hope a big crowd will be present to greet the Asian Champions.

He remains confident that a group of players that he has worked with for a decade at several age-group levels will once again not let him or the country down. This time, the stakes are higher than ever.

“The boys have realized all my dreams in winning the 2008 AFC U-18 Cup, and qualified for the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, besides lifting the Gulf Cup 2013, the silver medal of the Asian Games 2010, and finishing third in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup,” Ali said proudly on returning from Spain. “But the big dream is to advance to the finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and we’ll fight for it.”

A victory against Japan would in many ways surpass the glory of Sydney. Then the route to Russia might suddenly start to look a lot less trying.

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