Saudi and UAE look for direct path to World Cup
Tuesday’s crucial encounter in Jeddah will decide the Gulf candidate to return on the global stage in 2018
There was a time, from the mid-1970 to the mid-1980s, as both nations produced unforgettable golden generations of players, that Iraq and Kuwait ruled Gulf, Arab and even Asian football.
Gulf Cups were exclusively shared. Both reached the quarter-finals at the Moscow Olympic games in 1980, the year Kuwait also claimed their one and only AFC Asian Cup. Above all, the two regional powerhouses fulfilled the ultimate dreams of their fans by reaching the World Cup; Kuwait in 1982, Iraq four years later.
They were the first Gulf nations to do so at that point, and few could have foreseen the ensuing socio-political turmoil in the region and the change of fortune around the corner.
A modern Gulf rivalry
Since then only two Gulf nations have made the World Cup finals. First, astonishingly, the UAE qualified to Italia 90. In 1994 the baton was passed on to Saudi Arabia, who would remarkably go on to appear in four consecutive World Cups.
The last decade has seen a downturn in Saudi fortunes, while witnessing an Emirati renaissance. Today, with Qatar seemingly in disarray, the neighbors are once again the Gulf’s best hope for a place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. On Tuesday, one or the other could take a huge step towards that goal when they meet in the latest AFC Group B qualifier in Jeddah.
There have been some titanic battles between the two countries in recent years, as both have strived to establish their regional superiority. Few however, have had the importance of this meeting.
After three matches each, Saudi Arabia are second in the group with seven points, behind Australia on goal difference, while the UAE are third on six. For two teams largely expected to fight over third place (and progress through the playoff route) behind firm favorites Australia and Japan, here is an opportunity to stake a serious claim for automatic progress.
History favors Saudi
History is on Saudi Arabia’s side. They have never lost to the UAE at home, and so far in this qualifying campaign, fate seems to be on their side. Their wins, 1-0 and 2-1 over Thailand and Iraq respectively, were achieved with three penalties, all coming after the 81stminute. In last week’s 2-2 draw with Australia, returning 2014 Asian Footballer of the Year Nasser Al Shamrani secured the valuable point on the 79th minute.
Bert Van Marwijk’s team, despite less than convincing performances, have shown a willingness to fight to the end. This team may struggle to emulate their World Cup counterparts of yesteryears, but they still possess individuals that can be counted on to make a difference.
Al Shamrani’s intervention came in his first international match in 18 months. Captain Osama Hawsawi continues to lead by example.
Mohammad Al Sahlawi scored a stunning 14 goals in the Second Round of qualifiers, though he remains on the mend from injury. The excellent Nawaf Al Abed, Yahia Al Shehri and Taiseer Al Jassam all stepped up against Australia, and indeed combined for the opening goal.
At home for the third home qualifier out of four, and having beaten the UAE in the Second Round group matches of this qualification campaign in Riyadh, Saudi will once again believe they can come out winners on Tuesday.
UAE’s psychological battle
For the UAE, the situation is a little more complex, psychologically speaking at least. Having scored an unexpected win last month away to Japan, hopes skyrocketed only to be brought down to earth days later as Australia beat Mahdi Ali’s men in Abu Dhabi. A 3-1 win over Thailand has restored momentum, but this international week was always going to be about the trip to Saudi Arabia.
Beating Saudi Arabia on their own turf has become something of a psychological barrier for the UAE over the years, and the last-minute loss to another Al Sahlawi penalty last year only served to highlight the issue.
The pragmatic Mahdi Ali, however, has little time for such matters, as the wonderful win over Japan showed.
Whether the players can break through the odds at long last remains to be seen, but this is a fantastically drilled squad, and after the third place finish at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the UAE are rightly perceived as one of the continent’s best teams.
Little needs to be said anymore about talisman Omar Abdulrahman, one of the leading contenders to be named 2016 Asian Player of the Year. In the 3-1 against Thailand, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil – who came on as substitute but would expect to start against Saudi – were among the goals again, and with the dangerous Ismail Al Hammadi starting from a more central position, the UAE might never have a better chance to get that elusive win against a team that often looked shaky against Australia.
With Japan and Australia guaranteed to take points off each other on Tuesday, a win for either the Saudis or Emiratis could well see them top the group before November’s last international fixtures of the year.
What initially looked like an important date in the fight for third place could end up being the match that decides which Gulf country returns to the World Cup.