Until recently, pressure seemed an alien concept to Omar Abdulrahman. On the pitch, with his head up and a magical left foot, he seemed to operate in his own space and time. Off it, he was a picture of youthful content.
As a landmark 2013 turned to 2014, the fairy-tale script has become more complicated. Al Ain lost their Arabian Gulf League title, he has been plagued with injuries, and his temperament has been questioned.
The first mini-bump of Abdulrahman’s career could not have come at a worse time for UAE coach Mahdi Ali.
The Emirati golden boy has been tasked with again leading the country to Gulf Cup of Nations glory in Saudi Arabia and at January’s Asian Cup in Australia.
Where before there was hope, now there is expectation. For Abdulrahman, heavy lies the head that wears the crown.
The UAE coach would bristle at the notion that one player is more important than “the group”. But dress it up however he wants publicly, in private Mahdi Ali would concede what the rest of the nation openly acknowledges; a UAE first 11 minus Abdulrahman, or with a misfiring one, is not the same force.
The midfielder’s absence from recent internationals has been telling: less creativity, fewer goals, fewer wins.
A six-match winless streak ended on Thursday against Lebanon in the UAE's last friendly before Friday's big kick off. Abdulrahman came on as a second-half substitute, yet doubts have persisted over his fitness.
On whether he will be ready for the opener against Oman, the good news is that he has been training with the squad in Riyadh and looks to be over his knee troubles.
No official announcement has come out of the UAE camp, but it seems likely Abdulrahman will feature in the team on Friday, though it is not clear which Abdulrahman will turn up.
The choice is between the one who could not put a foot wrong last year in Bahrain and had been part of the all-conquering Al Ain team, and the injury-prone, twitchy one who was whisked off in the second half by Zlatko Dalic as Al Ain crumbled against Al Hilal of Saudi in the Asian Champions League semi-final first leg.
Many blamed the midfielder’s poor defensive performance that day for his withdrawal.
Possibly for the first time in his charmed career, his contribution on the pitch was being questioned.
He has also faced accusations that he has been trying to manufacture a move abroad.
Suddenly, criticism was not sitting well with Abdulrahman, who several times responded to his doubters on Twitter. The pressure seemed finally to be having an effect.
Despite all that, there is one undeniable truth about Abdulrahman – he has never let his country down.
Whether at the 2012 London Olympics, the Gulf Cup last year, or throughout the qualifying campaign to the Asian Cup in Australia, he has been outstanding for the national team.
Time and again, he has stood head and shoulders above opponents and teammates on the international stage.
The last time the UAE played a tournament in Saudi Arabia soil at last summer’s OSN Cup, where they overcame Trinidad and Tobago in a penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw and beat New Zealand 2-0 in the final.
Abdulrahman was consistently majestic in that event – a player at the peak of his powers, practically unstoppable.
“Oh Emiratis, how lucky you are to have a player like Omar,” a Saudi television commentator practically wept as Abdulrahman’s superlative left foot cut the Kiwi defence to shreds.
That day there were barely a handful of people present at King Fahd Stadium to watch him, but Friday could not be more different.
Thousands of fans will fill Prince Faisal Stadium in Riyadh. With respect to the other 21 players on the pitch, it is the player with 21 on his back they will have their eyes on.
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