It isn’t supposed to end here. Not for a generation deemed “golden” when they qualified for the London 2012 Olympics, more than three years ago.
Yet the risk of dismissal is now palpable. Halfway through the second round of Asia qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the UAE national team are outside the 12 places available for the final stage of qualifying to Russia.
A 2-1 defeat at Saudi Arabia on Thursday left the UAE with the poorest record of the eight second-place sides in this stage, with four points and a goal differential of zero. Only the top four Nos 2 advance.
To a degree, Mahdi Ali’s side have been unlucky. Their group is one of only two with three sides who played in the 2015 Asian Cup. Also, Indonesia’s ouster from the round, by the Asian Football Confederation, led to a decision to ignore results against fifth-place sides. Malaysia are the fifth-place side in Group A, so the UAE’s 10 goals against them, at present, count for nothing.
Further, Saudi Arabia, five points ahead of the UAE in the group, have two victories in the 90th minute or later – 3-2 over Palestine and 2-1 over the Emiratis. Give Saudi credit for tenacity, but those sorts of victories cannot be planned.
More important are the rising issues in the UAE side.
The special generation of players is absorbing hits at both ends of the age spectrum.
Three key members of the UAE 2012 Olympic team are, at present, irrelevant: defender and former captain Hamdan Al Kamali and midfielders Rashid Essa and Mohammed Fawzi. Midfielder Amer Abdulrahman has rarely had a stretch of fitness, and it sometimes shows, as it did in Jeddah on Thursday when the Baniyas veteran was subbed after 63 minutes.
All are age 26 or younger.
Meanwhile, Mahdi Ali’s side have not taken significant reinforcements from the age cohorts behind that of the golden generation. Granted, the current age-group sides have not enjoyed much international success, but are there no individual talents who could help the senior side?
The situation with the goalkeeper has deteriorated. Ali Kasheif once was an automatic starter but he has not been the same since his latest knee surgery, and his Al Jazira team have haemorrhaged goals for two seasons. Majed Naser, the temperamental but gifted veteran, cannot win a place in his Al Ahli side. Khalid Essa is the starter almost by default.
Increasingly, it seems as if the senior side wait for one of the trio of Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout to do something spectacular. The former gave up the late penalty, but should a side’s midfield maestro be expected to make a clinical tackle in the box? Khalil had an excellent goal, which the Emiratis came close to turning into a draw, but Mabkhout struggled throughout.
This is not over, but the easy trip to the final 12 is not happening. Instead, the UAE probably need to take three points each from three home matches, versus East Timor, Palestine and Saudi, to be confident of being in the upper half of the second-place sides – and moving within a step of the country’s first World Cup finals since 1990.
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