World Cup 2022: Five pivotal players for UAE in must-win play-off against Australia

National team are two matches from a second appearance at football's showpiece event

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The UAE are days away from conceivably their most important match in more than two decades, when they take on Australia in the 2022 World Cup play-off in Qatar on Tuesday. Win, and the national team face Peru on June 13 for a place at the global finals later this year. Here’s a selection of the key players in the UAE’s bid for a second appearance at football’s marquee tournament.

Ali Mabkhout

Hardly a stretch, granted, but the UAE’s all-time leading scorer may well have a major role to play if the national team are to complete step one of two on the road to Qatar 2022. Mabkhout was far from his best for the majority of the third round of qualification, scoring only three times in seven Group A games (he does, though, remain the lead scorer through the entire World Cup 2022 qualification, with 14).

In truth, had the UAE frontman not wasted numerous chances during those opening few matches in Round 3, the team might have pushed Iran and South Korea a little closer for the automatic qualification spots. Mabkhout’s disappointing form for country has carried over to club; he struck only 10 times in the league last season for Al Jazira – some way short of his usual output.

The hope, however, is Mabkhout will repeat his decisive contribution from the last time the UAE faced Australia, when he struck the only goal of the 2019 Asian Cup quarter-final. Big games call for important players, and Mabkhout fits that mould for the UAE.

UAE's forward Ali Mabkhout. AFP

Ali Salmeen

It’s always difficult to choose one from the Salmeen-Abdullah Ramadan midfield axis, but the Al Wasl star will be charged more with shackling Australia’s chief creators and thus protecting the UAE backline. Primarily, Salmeen supplies the grit to Ramadan’s deep-lying guile, often breaking up play and then teeing up his teammate to find a forward pass.

That does, though, Salmeen a disservice: he too can link play, and his rocket goal against Vietnam in the second round last June showed he can be a threat from range. Yet tenacity is his most obvious asset, and was missed considerably when he was injured initially during the early stages in the third round of qualification.

Perhaps crucially, manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena knows Salmeen well: he was a pivotal part of Wasl’s second- and third-place finishes in the league in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 campaigns, and their runs to both finals of the 2018 President’s Cup and 2018 League Cup. Ally Salmeen’s fixity of purpose to Ramadan’s in-game intelligence, and the UAE might have enough to win the midfield battle.

Ali Salmeen. Credit: UAE FA.

Khalid Essa

No matter what, if the UAE are to triumph on Tuesday, they will surely need their goalkeeper to stand strong when required. Thus, Arruabarrena has a decision to make for the play-off: Ali Khaseif was preferred by predecessor Bert van Marwijk, although his experience soon gave way to a succession of questionable moments between the posts.

Without doubt, Khaseif is a valued member of the squad, but Essa now appears the better fit. The Al Ain No 1 is coming off a brilliant season with his club, where they captured the league title with the division’s best defence. Within that, Essa has been excellent. It’s telling, too, that Arruabarrena opted for Essa in both his qualifiers in charge thus far, that decisive Group A closing double-header in March.

Maybe still prone to the odd rash decision, Essa is vastly experienced at this level also, and should therefore not be overawed by the magnitude of the match. Critically, he has the confidence of the defence in front of him.

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates - January 14, 2019: Khalid Essa of UAE and Teerasil Dangda battle of Thailand during the game between UAE and Thailand in the Asian Cup 2019. Monday, January 14th, 2019 at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain. Chris Whiteoak/The National

Harib Abdallah

The rise to prominence for the UAE youngster has been swift yet warranted. There is nothing better for boosting that profile, really, than a winner against the previously unbeaten South Korea in the group finale, which sealed the UAE’s play-off spot.

Abdallah had already burst onto the scene with Shabab Al Ahli in the 2020 Asian Champions League, notching the decisive strike in the match against Iran’s Shahr Khodro. He was 17 at the time. Boasting blistering pace and a confidence that belies his age, Abdallah is a thrilling watch, a true get-out-of-your-seat winger who seems to have an incredibly bright future. But, with that, expectation must be tempered.

Abdallah is still only 19 and should not carry too much of the attacking burden for his club, let alone his national team. In fact, there is no guarantee Arruabarrena will start him, even if the Argentine knows Abdallah’s potential having managed him at Shabab Al Ahli; the Emirati was already attracting national-team attention during Van Marwijk’s tenure. Still, Abdallah's ability to break through defences could be the ace in the pack for the UAE.

UAE and Shabab midfielder Omar Abdulrahman. AFP

Omar Abdulrahman

A “key players” piece on the UAE is never quite complete without the country’s most naturally gifted footballer – whenever he is available for selection, of course. And so it is now: Abdulrahman, the 2016 Asian player of the year and the most gilded of the recent “golden generation,” is finally back in the international fold.

Last Sunday’s friendly against Gambia - he played the entire second half in Dubai - marked Abdulrahman’s first UAE appearance since November 2019, a period pockmarked by serious injury and subsequent fitness concerns. There is no question as to what he can bring to the national team: Abdulrahman is an expert creator, able to find a killer pass or crack open a particularly resolute defence.

Mabkhout, especially, has long benefited from Abdulrahman’s vision. However, just what sort of impact can the latter have? Abdulrahman made only five appearances in the league this season and, understandably, remains short of full fitness. Can he then start a match of such significance? For sure, having him as an option off the bench, should the UAE need a spark, is welcome. Whether he can provide more may well form one of Arruabarrena’s toughest decisions.

Updated: June 05, 2022, 3:57 AM
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