UAE must look forward, not back, after Australia loss

After a dream start in Tokyo, reality came knocking in Abu Dhabi

Ali Khaled
Ali Khaled - Special to Al Arabiya English
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After a dream start in Tokyo, reality came knocking in Abu Dhabi.

Only five days after a sensational 2-1 win away to Japan, UAE footballers were brought down to earth after a 1-0 defeat to Australia in Group B of the AFC 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

It is a familiar feeling for coach Mahdi Ali and his players. At the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, the UAE defeated then champions Japan on penalties in an epic quarter-final clash, only to lose the semi-final to the home team, who would go on to win the competition.

A loss to the champions of Asia, and a close one at that, is certainly no shame for the Emiratis. Yet one of the UAE’s biggest crowds in recent years came to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, more in expectation than just hope. In the past, fans have been criticized for not showing interest in the early stages of qualifying campaigns or even tournaments and only getting on board once the team is in a favorable position.

Not yesterday. Around 40,000 fans braved a horrendously hot and humid night to back the Whites, the stadium filling up two hours before kickoff. A stirring rendition of the national anthem and noisy support throughout would prove not enough, however.

There was bitter disappointment at the final whistle, though in truth the home supporters can have no complaints as Australia were the better team in a game that generally lacked too many clear cut chances. The UAE looked leggy, especially the front pairing of Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil, and rarely threatened Matt Ryan in Australia’s goal. In an understandably slow-paced match, the Socceroos had swiftly cast aside any suggestions they would wilt in the humid conditions, and if anything showed better energy levels in the second half. The UAE, despite the expected, sporadically excellent, promptings of Omar Abdulrahman, ultimately had no answer to Tim Cahill’s 75th minute winner.

UAE coach Mahdi Ali might have been angry about several marginal refereeing calls, but at least he struck the right note when he reminded the media that his side only lost one match and not the qualifying campaign.

Before taking on Japan last week, reports out of the UAE training camp suggested the players and coach would have been satisfied with two points from these most difficult of two opening fixtures. In the circumstance, three should be cherished, although following that shock win in Saitama, a defeat at home was always going to be a massive anticlimax.

The UAE now sit in fourth in the table for Group B, but they should not be too despondent and don’t have too long for a shot at redemption. Next up is Thailand at home in Abu Dhabi on October 6. An expected win against an admittedly improving side – as other teams take points off each other – should restore belief ahead of what is shaping up to be a titanic clash against Saudi Arabia five days later in Jeddah.

The two teams have already met twice in the previous round, with the Saudis winning 2-1 at home and the return match in the UAE finishing 1-1.

With Iraq having lost their opening two matches, it looks increasingly likely, as most predictions before the start of the qualifiers suggested, the UAE will be fighting it out with the Saudis for the third spot in the group and potentially a route to Russia via the play-offs.

But that need not be the limit of the UAE’s ambitions. Once the disappointment of this loss fades, that away win in Japan should stand as reminder of the capacity of this team to beat any of their opponents anywhere.

With each team having eight matches left there are still 24 points to play for.

In the 2014 AFC World Cup qualifying campaign, 13 and 14 points were enough to gain second place in the two groups of five teams. Meanwhile 10 and 14 points secured third positions for Jordan and Uzbekistan who faced off in the playoff.

This time around, the two groups are made up of six teams each, and it might require a haul nearer the 20-point mark for automatic qualification. Difficult, but by no means impossible.

Above and beyond the many mathematical permutations, however, the UAE must overcome one major psychological barrier: how to beat Saudi Arabia on their own soil, something they have never achieved in their history and something which is starting to feel like a major mental block even for this “Golden Generation” of players.

The Saudis have made a perfect start to their campaign with six points from two matches, though with the caveat of not having faced either of the two superpowers of Japan and Australia as the Emiratis have done. Five days before they face the UAE next month, they themselves will attempt to take something of the Asian Champions in Jeddah, while Mahdi Ali’s team face Thailand at home.

The picture could look different as the two Gulf neighbors step out onto the pitch at King Abdullah Stadium. Mahdi Ali will remind his team that it’s a long road ahead and to only look forward, not back. Well, as reminder of the heights they are capable of reaching, looking back to that famous win in Tokyo couldn’t hurt.

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