‘Mabrouk, mabrouk’: With UAE’s first World Cup step boldly taken, focus moves to second
SAITAMA, JAPAN // Mahdi Ali answered four questions, as eloquently and as thoroughly as he typically does, then thanked the Japanese for their hospitality and made his way from the press conference towards the UAE team bus.
The majority of his players had already taken their seats, save for Ahmed Khalil, the two-goal hero of the night, and Omar Abdulrahman, the chief playmaker forever in demand, as questions were posed and congratulations passed on in the mixed zone from the travelling UAE media.
“Mabrouk, mabrouk,” they declared, one after another.
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Congratulations indeed. The UAE had just defeated Japan 2-1 at a frenetic Saitama Stadium 2002, a previously improbable result that sparked the final phase of qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
With an opening win in Group B, a second appearance at a global finals suddenly felt wholly plausible, no longer simply the “dream getting bigger and bigger”, as Mahdi Ali had said earlier in the week.
Returning from Japan with one point initially seemed enough, the “positive result” the UAE manager emphasised he sought upon arrival in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Yet his team surpassed that, had taken that and more, had gleaned from one of the group’s heavyweights what could become a defining victory on the road to Russia.
“It’s a wonderful thing to start this third round with a win away against one of best teams in Asia,” Mahdi Ali said at the post-match press conference. “Against Japan in Japan.”
That was exactly it: against Japan in Japan. Four-time Asian champions, five-time World Cup participants, 13 European-based players in the squad, 25 places higher in the current Fifa world rankings. And the UAE had never won against Japan in Japan.
Yet they emerged victorious, a victory that changes completely the complexion of the group, even at this infant stage.
Japan and Australia, the two powerhouses of the pool, were supposed to take spots one and two in the final standings next September, the only berths to guarantee a place at the next World Cup.
The UAE, so the theory went, would at best battle for third with Saudi Arabia to progress to an inter-confederation play-off. But they gave a performance that suggested a speedier route is realistic.
It explained the quick exit from Saitama on Thursday night. Four questions at the press conference and then Mahdi Ali was off, straight to the airport and straight to Dubai. Straight onto the next challenge.
That represents Australia, the current Asian champions, in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, where the UAE could conclude this daunting double-header with a maximum six points.
Six huge points as they bid to turn that swelling dream into reality.
Little wonder the team wanted to return to the Emirates as soon as possible. Friday was a day of rest: no running or stretching or ball work, just enough time for the players to catch their breath post-Japan. Because the countdown to Australia has already begun.
Provisions have been made. Specific fluids to rehydrate, specific timings to sleep and thus combat the jet-lag that affected them in Tokyo, specific exercises in the swimming pool and time in ice baths to soothe aching limbs.
The quick turnaround between matches, which Mahdi Ali has often bemoaned, demanded it. Australia demand it.
For Ange Postecoglou’s side constitute another stern examination, another test of the UAE’s Group B credentials. As extraordinary as the Japan victory felt, it is “only one step from 10”, reminded Mahdi Ali. The first step, nine more to go.
So the focus has shifted to the second, against a powerful and prominent Australia side who began Group B by defeating Iraq 2-0 on Thursday.
Perhaps a point at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday would suffice, would be regarded a seismic return from the UAE’s opening two fixtures.
Rest and recovery are therefore required, together with a solution to their troublesome right-back position and maybe even something to strengthen central midfield.
Above all else, the UAE must display the same focus and fight against Australia. Build on that Japan bonus, bolster their shot at World Cup 2018.
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Published: September 2, 2016 04:00 AM