x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gulf Cup: Belief met with resilience by the UAE team

Expectation is ever-growing as the UAE team progresses, and the young side are showing determination, writes Ali Khaled.

Ahmed Khalil, left, is the first-choice striker for the UAE but has yet to score in the competition. Marwan Naamani / AFP
Ahmed Khalil, left, is the first-choice striker for the UAE but has yet to score in the competition. Marwan Naamani / AFP

Hope, is one thing, belief, that most elusive of sporting qualities, is quite another.

On Tuesday night, perhaps for the first time in their fledgling senior careers, many of the UAE's young footballers were expected to win a match, even against the wounded Gulf Cup hosts Bahrain. And unlike their opening match against Qatar, three days earlier, the pressure showed. This was a disjointed showing, punctuated with defensive gaffes and general nervous play.

But one thing remained the same - the players' seemingly unshakable belief. Just when it looked like they had thrown away the chance to take maximum points from their first two games, a goal brilliantly set up by Omar Abdulrahman and scored by Majid Hassan, ensured a second successive victory for the UAE at the Gulf Cup.

It was the first time the UAE have won back-to-back competitive matches in three years, and the enthusiastic celebrations at the end betrayed the previously calm exterior of the team and coaching staff.

Minutes later, after the last of the crowd had left the Bahrain National Stadium, the UAE's players were back on the pitch for their post-match warm down. After the earlier joyous scenes, it was a reminder that, beyond the 90 minutes, the hard work, preparation and conditioning never stop.

The semi-final place had been secured, and the hopes of an increasingly expectant nation, had been met. You could almost excuse the players and their coach for daring to dream of a second Gulf Cup championship, even if for just that one night.

It is unlikely, however, that anything of the sort would have been allowed inside the camp. Now, more than ever, is the time for pragmatism and cold calculation.

Publicly, Mahdi Ali and his players have insisted that they want to win every game. And while we have no reason to doubt this, the coach will in private be mulling team selection for the final group match against Oman, who can still qualify from the group. He said yesterday that he intends to rest some of his key players but he has other issues to resolve, specifically does he persevere with his first-choice (but misfiring) striker Ahmed Khalil in the hope of him scoring a morale-boosting goal? And, if not, does he give the experienced Ismail Matar, the hero of the 2007 triumph, an extended run at a stage he is familiar with?

Much has been made of the fantastic support the UAE have received from their travelling fans, who on Tuesday were joined by as many as 25 women flown over by the Football Association especially for the match.

But one thing is for certain, Mahdi Ali will not be swayed by the demands of the media or the understandably euphoric public. Since becoming manager of the senior national team, the 47-year-old Emirati has consistently shown remarkable coolness and realism, never more than at last summer's Olympics in London. Whatever the setbacks, rarely does he panic. He has shown total belief in his team. In turn, the payers have reciprocated with their performances.

But in terms of expectations and pressure, he is entering uncharted waters. No doubt he would have been concerned with his team's poor second-half performance in their last game and the disintegration of the team's defensive shape for long periods.

When Bahrain equalised in the second half it looked like only one team were capable of winning. And yet, once again, this young team showed remarkable resilience and confidence to come back.

In the circumstances, the brilliantly worked goal by Hassan was, as the coach said in his post-match press conference, a credit to the players.

But he will also know that the team cannot hope to get away with such lax defending too often. Certainly not against better opposition than Bahrain.

And better opposition is exactly what awaits the UAE in the semi-finals; most likely the holders Kuwait or the 2007 Asian Cup winners Iraq. The UAE may have become favourites for the cup after their win over the hosts, but by the time they line up in the semi-finals on Tuesday, that tag will mean very little.

Before the tournament began, success-starved Emirati fans would have been content with a place in the last four. The feeling was that this remains a stepping stone to the far more serious business of qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

Such restraint has almost certainly been banished now. The fans will be looking beyond tomorrow's match with Oman, perhaps even beyond the semi-final.

Unlike the players, and the coach, the fans have already started dreaming of glory.


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