'We deserved this': Abdullah joy after UAE stun South Korea to stay in World Cup race

Teen hero repays faith of coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena as national team advance to playoff against Australia

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In the end, it was comfortable. Three clear points between the UAE in third and Iraq in fourth, plus a goal difference so substantial that it essentially amounted to another point besides.

So no need to stress, right?

Given the way they managed their smash-and-grab raid on South Korea, it did seem as though the UAE’s players had ice on their minds to go with the fire in their veins.

Okay, so they gave up 78 per cent possession to their gilded opposition, who had long since secured their own passage to a World Cup for the 10th successive time.

The UAE themselves are still a long way from being able to toast a similar achievement. But, thanks to their 1-0 win over the previously undefeated Koreans on a thrilling night at Maktoum Stadium, they still have skin in the game.

There are now two matches left between the UAE and a place at the World Cup, across the Arabian Gulf in Qatar in November. Both eliminators.

First, a playoff against Australia. Navigate that, and there is the prospect of a last-chance decider against the fifth-placed side from South American qualifying.

UAE coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena watches the victory. EPA

So, still work to do. But time to celebrate, too, given how they saved themselves in Oud Metha. And well they did. At the end of the tumultuous 90 minutes the players lined up in front of their fans, and both serenaded each other with an impassioned rendition of Ishy Bilady.

How the UAE had managed what no other team had done in a year – beating South Korea – was remarkable.

This was a side shorn of a variety of usual starters. That included Ali Mabkhout, the striker who had scored more goals than Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski, or anyone else so far in qualifying for Qatar, but who was absent suspended.

In his stead, Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the Argentine coach in charge of just his second game with the national team, gave a first start to Harib Abdullah.

A 19-year-old striker light on experience of the pro game, let alone the international game. But a player whose merits were well known to his boss, given Arruabarrena previously worked with him at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai.

“This is my strategy,” Arruabarrena said. “Anyone who knows me from my time at Al Wasl or Shahab Al Ahli knows I always give chances to young players.

“If they are ready, they have to participate. I don’t care about the age of the player. The main thing for me is the desire, effort and performance of the player.”

And how the youngster responded to his coach’s backing. Abdullah was sparkling. Despite the home team’s paucity of possession, he had two penalty appeals, contrived the best chance of the first half for himself and then, in the second, decided his side’s fate.

Running on to a header from Mohammed Abbas, he showed a sharp turn of pace and was coolness personified as he struck the only goal of the game. Tellingly, his first thought was to run to Arruabarrena to celebrate.

“I am so happy,” Abdullah said, after receiving the player of the match award.

“I want to thank the players, the coach, the administration, and also the fans for the way they supported our team.

“The spirit we had showed we wanted to fight for this win, and we deserved these three points, and to qualify for the playoffs.”

By the end, all but the travelling supporters, who were collected together in the corner of Al Nasr’s home ground, were celebrating avidly.

The result, after all, had rendered Iraq’s 1-1 draw with Syria across town in Al Qusais as inconsequential in the final count up. That play-off spot was all UAE’s.

After a troubled campaign in the third round of Asian qualifying, the UAE had saved their very best till the very last. And so they battle on.

Updated: March 30, 2022, 5:01 AM
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