Somehow, the UAE kept alive their World Cup dream on Tuesday night, forcing an unexpected and unlikely victory against Saudi Arabia to extend their improbable bid into its final week.
Shorn of principal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Edgardo Bauza’s side recovered from Nawaf Al Abed’s first-half penalty and rebounded against their great Gulf rivals to seal a famous win. That despite Mahmoud Khamis’s red card late on.
For the victory, the UAE could thank Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil, who chipped in a goal apiece, each superb, each displaying why the national team need not rely on Abdulrahman after all. Seemingly without any real hope, the rescue mission to Russia rumbles on. It pushes that quest until next week.
In truth, it was never really meant to be that way. Not least because the UAE entered the match fourth in Group B, requiring maximum points from the Saudis and then Iraq in seven days’ time to stand any chance.
With only those two fixtures remaining, other results had to fall in their favour. A healthy swing in goal difference was required, too. Not least, also, since Bauza took charge for only the second competitive match since his appointment in May.
Yet the UAE triumphed and their World Cup chances sustain. A play-off spot, however improbable that remains, may just be within grasp.
Initially, it appeared anything but. On 18 minutes, Saudi Arabia were awarded a penalty, when Al Abed swivelled onto a Yasser Al Shahrani pass and was caught by Mohammed Fawzi’s outstretched leg. The decision was correct, with Al Abed nonchalantly sending Khalid Essa the wrong way with his spot-kick.
The visitors’ joy was short-lived. Less than a minute after the restart, Mabkhout controlled brilliantly Tariq Ahmed’s cross, then half-volleyed the ball low past goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf and into the bottom corner.
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Carved almost in one movement, it was a goal of real class. Mabkhout, the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League’s top goalscorer, had drawn his side level.
Not long into the second half, the Saudis almost restored their lead. This time, captain Osama Hawsawi crashed his header from a corner against the UAE crossbar. Five minutes later, Yahya Al Shehri sent a free header wide.
Then, nearly from nowhere, Khalil struck. The UAE forward stepped inside from the left and onto his right foot, thrashing a long-range effort high into the Saudi goal. It was Khalil’s 16th goal of qualification, drawing him alongside Saudi counterpart Mohammed Al Sahlawi at the top of the charts. Bauza’s men had a lifeline. In the end, even Khamis’s last-minute red card could not wreck their night.
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A 2-1 victory sealed - their first win against Saudi since 2007 - has lifted spirits for what should prove to be a frantic final week to come. On Thursday, group leaders Japan take on third-placed Australia, then five days later the UAE meet Iraq. Hours after, the Saudis host Japan.
Somehow, and against all odds, the UAE live to fight another day.