The first 90 minutes of a football match are the most important. These words of Bobby Robson might seem another of his well-known gaffes, in the same league as "practice makes permanent" and "don't count your eggs until the chicken's laid them". But if you are a UAE football fan, you just might sense a deeper meaning, a wisdom that has been lost in recent times.
Dissecting the UAE's results since their last win, a thrilling 3-2 conquest in Kuwait, shows the national side have been unable to sustain their tempo till the end. They have been winless in 10 matches since, losing games or dropping points usually in the final 20 minutes. The signs of this malaise were even visible against Kuwait. The visitors were 2-0 up until the 52nd minute. Kuwait then struck twice to level the scores, and the UAE were saved by an injury-time winner from Saif Mohammed.
In the next game, Syria scored twice in the second-half, the third coming in injury time, to almost edge the UAE out of contention for a place in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. In the opening match of the final round of Asian qualifying, North Korea scored in the 72nd and 80th minutes to return home with a 2-1 win; Saudi Arabia equalised in the 69th minute after Subait Khater had put the UAE ahead in the 23rd, and four minutes later the visitors added a second to seal the game; South Korea scored two in the final 10 minutes of their 4-1 win, while Karim Bagheri struck in the 81st minute to earn a point for Iran after Abdulraheem Jumaa had put the hosts ahead in the 19th minute.
The friendlies have followed a similar pattern with Iraq equalising in the 86th minute for a 2-2 draw; Japan scored in the 72nd minute before Ismail al Hammadi levelled five minutes later; Bahrain struck in the 74th and 78th minutes to win 2-3 after being down 2-1; Algeria scored early in the seventh minute to win 1-0. Coach Dominique Bathenay is well-aware of these lapses and he has been working hard to wipe them out. And perhaps that's the reason he has got veterans Mohammed Omar and Abdulsalaam Jumaa back into the squad for the defence of the Gulf Cup title.
Abdulsalaam is just the ally his brother Abdulraheem Jumaa needs to marshal the midfield. His sage-like demeanour will bring calm to the middle and his experience will aid his young team-mates. The role of Omar will be even more significant. Supremely fit and blessed with an infectious enthusiasm, he is equally comfortable among the team's Asian Youth Cup winning teenagers and the senior pros. He also has the invaluable experience of leading the UAE to their first Gulf Cup win in 2007.
Omar has also been in superb form, scoring nine goals for Al Nasr this season. The bigger deal is that five of those goals have come in the second-session, and two in the final minute. The point is: here is a 35-year-old who will battle till the final seconds and be a threat right through. That has been something that the UAE have been sorely lacking. The Whites have been short of goals too, with just 10 in the since that win over Kuwait. The primary reason for that has been Ismail Matar's recent drought. The diminutive striker has found the net just twice in the past 10 games, but he has not been lacking in effort.
The presence of Omar alongside him should lighten Matar's burden and set him free to work his magic, provided he returns to Oman after his father's tragic death. If the duo can work in tandem like they did at home in 2007, and if the team can save some in the tank for the final minutes, there is every chance of the Emiratis returning home with the trophy. firstname.lastname@example.org