x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Gulf Cup: Mahdi Ali's men have arrived

This UAE team, nurtured carefully through the youth ranks by Ali, are now living up to the hopes of the country's football supporters.

Much is expected of Mahdi Ali to deliver the goods with the national team.
Much is expected of Mahdi Ali to deliver the goods with the national team.

That was the team, and theirs the performances, who stirred the hopes of UAE football supporters during the dark years of the senior national side.

The youth, the energy, the technical brilliance, the palpable unity of purpose - the qualities the UAE's special age-group team seemed to have all over the pitch. The qualities sorley lacking among their elder brothers, who once knocked down did not come back. Whose idea of victory was a scoreless draw. Who were as likely to put the ball in their own net as the opponent's.

It made for hard times. The single point from eight games in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The goalless exit from the 2011 Asian Cup. The deflating, no-points-from-five-matches crash-out, last year, from the second-last round of qualifying for Brazil 2014.

Meanwhile, those kids who were in the age-group teams, coming up together, growing together, winning together, they kept a nation from football despair. "Things are grim now, but Mahdi Ali's team is not far away."

And now they have arrived.

If anyone missed their stirring run last year to the nation's first Olympic football berth or somehow overlooked, during London 2012, the 1-0 first-half lead over Luis Suarez's Uruguay, the 1-1 score after an hour with Ryan Giggs's Team GB and the 1-1 draw with a physically gifted Senegal side ... well, those young men were back on stage at the Gulf Cup last night.

And they showed they are ready to earn results at an important tournament at the senior level. Eleven young men in white, and not one over age 25.

Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil in a dynamic striker pairing. Omar Abdulrahman and Amer Abdulrahman forming a midfield duo of such exquisite technical gifts that it conjured images of Barcelona's midfield maestros. Ismail Al Hammadi complementing them and Khamis Esmael backing them up. Abdullah Mousa running dangerous overlaps up the left flank, Abdulaziz Sanquor on the right, and Hamdan Al Kamali and Mohammed Ahmed in the middle of the defence, and the steady Ali Kasheif in goal.

Their resounding 3-1 victory last night over a Qatar side still competing for a 2014 World Cup berth, and one which includes two naturalised South Americans and a Ghanan, was overrrun by the UAE's young guns. Not even a 11th-minute penalty, of doubtful provenance, could slow them.

Omar Abdulrahman levelled with a free kick from 20 yards that sailed over a four-man wall and found a soft home in the upper-right corner of the net. Ali Mabkhout's hustle play just before the half hour, when he took advantage of an unseen offside position to run on to a pass out of the back from Sanquor, push the ball into the box for Khalil, and pounce on his deflected pass gave the UAE the decisive goal.

Ahmed added the insurance tally in the 66th minute when he crisply headed a corner into the net, on a ball from that man Omar Abdulrahman.

Nothing about this team or that victory was accidental. They were carefully nurtured through the youth ranks, kept together and always led by Mahdi Ali, and they were hardened and sharpened to a fine edge during a month of training last June in Switzerland and Austria, ahead of that impressive Olympics.

And here they are.

Can they possibly win the 21st Gulf Cup? With three points already in their pocket, their chances of reaching the semi-finals are excellent. And they are unlikely to see anything in Bahrain that will be more intimidating than 60,000 in Old Trafford and Uruguay on the other side of the pitch, or 90,000 in Wembley with Team GB playing at home.

This is just the start, of course. Mahdi Ali and the FA will be thinking of this group at the 2015 Asian Cup, two years hence. And qualifying for the Russia 2018 World Cup in the same year.

The UAE team of the future? It finally is the UAE team of the present.


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