Teen striker Harib Abdullah keeps UAE's World Cup dreams alive

Shock victory over South Korea sets up play-off against Australia

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Harib Abdullah maintained the UAE’s dream of playing at the Qatar 2022 World Cup after scoring the goal that gave them a shock win over South Korea in Dubai.

The teenage striker was making his first start for the senior team, and was filling in for the most prolific goalscorer anywhere in the world in qualification for Qatar, with Ali Mabkhout out suspended.

And yet he showed no sign of nerves or inexperience as he coolly dispatched the only goal of the game which gave the hosts the points they needed to confirm third place in the group, in the third round of Asian qualifying.

The result means UAE will now face Australia in a one-game play-off in June. Win that, and they have a last-chance play-off against the fifth-placed side from South American qualifying for the right to play at the World Cup.

By the time of kick off, Lebanon’s faint hopes of making it into third place had been extinguished by a 2-0 defeat in Iran.

That left UAE – starting out with a single-point advantage - and Iraq in a two-way shoot out, in matches taking place simultaneously about 10kms apart in Dubai.

On the other side of Dubai Creek, Iraq were pitted against last-placed Syria at Rashid Stadium in Al Qusais, while at Al Nasr’s home ground in Oud Metha, UAE faced the might of Son Heung-min and Co.

There was nothing tangible on it for the visitors, who were on an unbeaten run stretching back a year. Qualification for the World Cup had long since been secured.

And yet, in the lead up to the game, coach and players alike had said the job was not done yet: they wanted to finish the group in first place.

Lebanon’s loss to Iran did have a bearing on that. It meant, by the time the time Caio Canedo got play under way at the Maktoum Stadium, South Korea had been leapfrogged at the top of the table by the Iranians.

The away side dominated possession from the off, and yet the most notable early incidents were at their end of the field.

Controversy arrived after 15 minutes, when Ahmed Al Kaf, the referee from Oman, awarded a free-kick to the hosts after Abdullah was having his shirt pulled to the left of South Korea’s box.

The video assistant referee alerted Al Kaf to the fact the UAE forward had initially had his sleeve pulled inside the penalty box – and yet he opted not to overturn his decision despite reverting to the pitchside monitor.

A penalty would have felt soft, yet it seemed little different to what he had given an infringement for anyway.

By now, news had filtered through from across the city that Alaa Al Dali had given Syria a 1-0 lead. Hopes soared among UAE supporters, but all were aware, too, that plenty of water had yet to pass under Garhoud Bridge between now and the end.

United Arab Emirates' Khalid Eisa celebrates after the match. Reuters

Midway through the half, Abdullah had another shout for a penalty, equally as soft, and rebuffed just the same.

It was he who had the national team’s first shot, too, when he drilled one in from range, straight at Jo Hyeon-woo in the South Korea goal.

Just as that was happening, Aymen Hussein was striking an equaliser for Iraq against Syria.

For all their possession in the first half – 72 per cent of the share – South Korea only really threatened the home goal just before the interval when Hwang Hee-chan floated a volley from range on to Khalid Eisa’s crossbar.

It was a nervous finish to the half for the hosts, seeing as the referee also reviewed a potential handball against Khalifa Al Hammadi, only to stick with his decision to give a corner to the Koreans.

The nerves abated in the 54th minute when Abdullah gave the hosts the lead.

Mohammed Abbas won a header near halfway which set Abdullah through for a run at goal.

The 19-year-old Shabab Al Ahli Dubai striker showed rapid acceleration, then great poise as he guided his shot past Jo and inside the post.

Immediately, he raced over to hug Rodolfo Aruabarrena, the coach who had given him his first start for the UAE senior team.

It was clear that UAE would have to fight doughty rearguard thereafter if they were to maintain their advantage.

First, they required acrobatics from Eisa, who tipped a close-range header from Hwang Ui-jo, the South Korea striker, on to the crossbar and over.

Abdelaziz Haikal wore a vicious shot on the shoulder. Waleed Abbas stabbed a block behind for one of South Korea’s 16 corners. In injury time, Eisa beat away a deflected free kick.

By the end, the possession statistics had blown out to 77 per cent in the away side’s favour. And yet the only statistic that mattered was that Abdullah, and the UAE, had the goal that mattered.

Updated: March 29, 2022, 4:24 PM