ABU DHABI // The UAE’s Under 23 national football team have not quite reached London. But they certainly could see it from the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium pitch last night.
Omar Abdulrahman scored a memorable goal in the 23rd minute as the UAE defeated Australia 1-0 before a singing and chanting throng of 28,724 and positioned themselves 90 minutes from qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics.
The final hurdle to the country’s biggest football event since the 1990 World Cup is a game in Uzbekistan on March 14. The young Emiratis do not have to win the match to finish top of Group B and gain immediate qualification for London 2012. A draw would be enough to see them through to the country’s first Summer Games football tournament.
Mahdi Ali, the man who has led this group of players since they were teenagers, said he counselled patience in remarks to them after the match at Al Jazira’s ground.
“The next match is more important and we have to keep focus and keep going rather than celebrate,” the Emirati coach said.
“We still have not qualified. We have a very important game which will be like a final game for us, because this will decide who goes to the final.”
The diminutive Omar Abdulrahman made the most important contribution, and he was crucial to the side in the absence of Amer Abdulrahman, the playmaker who missed the match with a foot injury.
Ali had an inkling the Al Ain midfielder would do something memorable.
“I told him before the game. ‘You are the key player in this game and can make the difference in the game.’ He showed that,” Ali said. “The goal was very brilliant, and we are glad that we had him.”
The goal was a heady mix of audacity and skill. After getting a short corner returned to him, Abdulrahman was only a few steps from the goal line when he unleashed a left-footed shot from about 20 yards at an opening, between goalkeeper and post, perhaps 40 centimetres wide.
The shot seemed to surprise Mathew Ryan, and the Australia goalkeeper got only a piece of it as he reached back with his right hand, deflecting the ball into the roof of the net.
Replays seemed to indicate the ball would have gone in, despite the steep angle, without Ryan’s deflection.
Australia could have had a goal or two in the first 45 minutes. The visitors were the more industrious from the opening whistle, pressing for the lead they knew they needed or else be ushered out of contention.
Their first big chance came in the 15th minute when Oliver Bozanic, the captain and busy little forward, got behind the UAE defence on the left, and sent a smooth ball toward the edge of the box, where Aaron Mooy, the midfielder who plays for St Mirren in Scotland, accepted it. His shot was well-struck but not quite wide enough to beat Khalid Essa, who pushed it away with his fingers as he dived to his left.
Their other big chance came in the 39th minute, when Mate Dugandzic chipped a ball in from 15 yards, over the head of Essa, but it caught just enough of the crossbar to bounce back, as 28,724 held their breath.
By then, of course, the UAE led.
The goal was the result of three separate but contributing actions.
Ahmed Ali, pushing forward, was just cynical enough to go down on light contact, drawing a foul from Ben Kantarovski 30 yards from the goal.
Ahmed Khalil, back in the side after missing one match, took the free kick, and he drove it on target, forcing Ryan to leap and push it over the bar.
That set up a corner kick taken short by Abdulrahman to Rashid Essa, whose back-heel pass to Abdulrahman was converted into a goal sure to be replayed on television highlight shows for years to come.
That left the UAE with 45 minutes to hold on against a team who had not scored in four previous matches in group play.
They showed themselves up to the task, and they got as close to London as an Olympic football team can be without entering its city limits.