UAE v Saudi Arabia: Omar Abdulrahman must take charge in World Cup qualifier

Like Abdulrahman, the UAE’s record against their main Gulf rivals is not encouraging. In 33 matches, the Emirates have won six and been beaten 20 times.

UAE's Omar Abdulrahman is defended by Thailand's Kroekrit Thaweekarn. Karim Sahib / AFP
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Jeddah 12 months ago remains a blotch on Omar Abdulrahman’s hitherto impressive CV.

The UAE playmaker, normally his country’s leading light, faded in the white-hot heat of the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia at the King Abdullah Sports City last October, his only contribution of note not a supreme piece of skill or a dazzling assist for a teammate.

In the 88th minute, and with the score of this pivotal second-round encounter tied at 1-1, Abdulrahman lunged wildly at Nawaf Al Abed in the UAE penalty area, prompting the referee to point to the spot. Mohammed Al Sahlawi converted for the hosts; Abdulrahman covered his face with his shirt. His indiscretion meant Saudi Arabia clinched a crucial victory, one that played a significant role in them eventually topping the group. The UAE would finish second.

• More: The UAE's Road to Russia

Abdulrahman had a night to forget. Not just in the concession of the penalty, but in his general play, his passing wayward, his performance strangely subdued. The UAE’s star man displayed none of his typical twinkle.

He has often struggled against Saudi opposition. At the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations, Abdulrahman was hounded and ultimately hurt to such an extent that he limped out from the semi-final in the 27th minute. An obvious target, it can sometimes border on the unpalatable.

A few months earlier, he had failed to sparkle for Al Ain against Al Hilal in the Asian Champions League semi-final first leg, as the Saudi Arabian side jumped to a 3-0 lead. Abdulrahman was not alone in underperforming that night, but Al Ain’s principal protagonist was well below par, a shadow of the featherweight midfielder with a heavyweight’s punch.

The toil is difficult to fathom. Familial connections to Saudi aside, Abdulrahman has not been able to dominate and dictate as normally he does, whether that be a mental block or the physical battle a match against his Gulf neighbours usually entails.

Yet his most recent meeting with the Saudi national team offered some solace. Abdulrahman scored at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium last March, in the 1-1 draw in the second round’s final group game and with progression already confirmed, a goal that restored parity on the night and provided a little personal redemption, too.

Since then, he has got only better, even more in tune with those around him, seemingly ever the more determined to drag his teams to new heights. For Al Ain in this year’s Champions League, Abdulrahman has excelled, reflected in the seven man-of-the-match awards from 11 appearances.

The latest, granted last month for a standout display against El Jaish in the semi-final first leg, was particularly deserved. Abdulrahman was so superior that night at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, assisting two goals and scoring the other in Al Ain’s 3-1 victory, that opposing manager Sabri Lamouchi labelled him “absolutely the best player in Asia”.

Anointed the continent’s finest, he needs to reinforce his ranking tomorrow, on familiar terrain, against familiar foes. Abdulrahman finds himself back where he was 12 months ago, at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, in front of the Saudis and with another pivotal World Cup qualifier in front of him. This time, though, the stakes are higher, for it is Matchday 4 of the third and final qualification stage for Russia 2018. The clash always felt vital.

Like Abdulrahman, the UAE’s record against their main Gulf rivals is not encouraging. In 33 matches, the Emirates have won six and been beaten 20 times. The draw in March halted a run of seven successive defeats. What is more, the UAE have yet to win a competitive fixture between the sides in Saudi Arabia.

So it makes Abdulrahman’s contribution tomorrow all the more important, especially since the Saudis are sure to focus on their chief threat once again. Unlike this time last year, Abdulrahman must find the solution to what has become a common conundrum.​

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