x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Gulf Cup: UAE coach Mahdi Ali is not to be questioned

Some of the calls he made, such as not playing the experienced Ismail Matar in the semi-final victory over Kuwait, were surprising but most of his calls have served him and UAE football well.

The experienced Ismail Matar was surprisingly not played in the Gulf Cup semi-finals. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters
The experienced Ismail Matar was surprisingly not played in the Gulf Cup semi-finals. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters

A few minutes after the conclusion of the victory that lifted the national team into the Gulf Cup final, a correspondent for the broadcaster Dubai Sports lured Mahdi Ali in front of a television camera.

After a generic question about the night's victory, the TV man asked the UAE football coach about his decision to replace the centre-back Hamdan Al Kamali in the first XI with Mohaned Salem. Mahdi Ali's expression turned dark, he answered curtly, "that is for another time" (also known as "the 12th of Never"), and off he stalked.

The episode was instructive on two levels. First, we should never forget that possession of a microphone makes anyone a football expert and, second, Mahdi Ali by now does not need to answer for any decision he makes.

The rest of us may speculate "why this, why that?" but Mahdi Ali has his reasons and he very likely will not share them with you.

It is a reticence that may exasperate but one he has earned - from most of a decade of success with the age-group side that now is the core of the senior team.

From the revelation of the first XI right into the 89th minute of the match with Kuwait, the curious among us no doubt had several questions we would have liked answered.

Salem, the Al Ain man, in the middle of the back row instead of Al Kamali, veteran of all those youth teams? Abdulaziz Haikal at right back, Abdulaziz Sanquor shifted over to the left and Abdullah Mousa on the substitute's bench? Habib Fardan on the left side of midfield despite very little history in the position?

And then perhaps the most curious decision of all: the first UAE substitute, in the 64th minute: Haboush Saleh, the tiny midfielder, for Fardan.

No Ismail Matar? Doesn't a 0-0 game in the 64th minute shout "Ismail Matar!" Matar was the hero of the 2007 Gulf Cup championship, and is a man who has played well in more big games than any Emirati since Adnan Al Talyan, and instead comes Haboush Saleh, an occasional starter for Baniyas?

We can guess at his thinking.

Mahdi Ali was concerned with his back line, and rightly so. The UAE had given away far too many good chances in their three group-stage matches. The coach certainly had not forgotten Al Kamali's alarmingly casual whiff on a ball over the top, against Bahrain a week ago, and his failure to turn in pursuit, a sequence which led to a goal. Thus, Salem, who, by the way, had a near-flawless performance.

Also, in defence, the Al Jazira man Mousa is a former left-sided midfielder converted to left back, and while he is wonderful at surging into the attack he is not as conscientious in tracking back. Thus, the reversion to the pairing of the Abdulazizes on the wings, the one that worked so well in qualifying for the London Olympics.

Fardan? Ismail Al Hammadi has not had a good tournament, and Fardan was OK in his earlier appearances. And Saleh as a substitute instead of Matar? Mahdi Ali apparently decided his side needed another passer, not another scorer, given that Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil each already had two goals in this tournament.

Or so we can speculate. To ask Mahdi Ali why is to invite him to make a judgment on his players, almost inescapably a negative one on the man he has removed, and he will never do that in public.

Never.

And anyone brave or foolish enough to press him on it is likely to see "Captain Mahdi's" back.

If he were new to the profession, or had a sketchy history of success, we might consider him rude or short-tempered. But keeping his opinions to himself is a strategy that works for him, and he is not going to change it just because an impressive victory has been achieved.

Careful viewers may have noticed, after Khalil's decisive goal, in the 89th minute, when the thousands of Emiratis in the stands and presumably tens of thousands watching on TV went momentarily insane, Mahdi Ali allowed himself one celebratory hug, and then he actively pulled away from the congratulatory mob.

The game was not over.

Four minutes of extra time were posted. A nation could be giddy, but Mahdi Ali still had work to do.

For another five minutes tonight, and 90 (or more) in the final come Friday.

Do not ask him how he has gotten this team to a final; just appreciate that he has.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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