x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gulf Cup: What a difference a win makes

Is this resurgence of the UAE team another false dawn, or are we set to witness something very special.

The players stretch as they prepare to face the hosts of the Gulf Cup. A win will see the UAE progress to the next round. Courtesy of the UAE FA
The players stretch as they prepare to face the hosts of the Gulf Cup. A win will see the UAE progress to the next round. Courtesy of the UAE FA

You can forgive Emirati football fans, and fans of Emirati football, for being overly cautious. So often in the past the senior national team have promised so much only to deliver so little.

Today, the nation's football team once again stands on the brink of a breakthrough. Will it prove to be yet another false dawn? Or is this young UAE team the real deal?

If the reactions of those wonderful travelling fans at the 21st Gulf Cup, or the public at home, are anything to go by, it would seem the latter. The UAE's 3-1 win over highly fancied Qatar in their opening match means that, for once, the nation approaches the clash with the hosts Bahrain tonight more in expectation than forlorn hope.

With good reason too. Teamwork, self-belief and incisive one-touch football -not qualities you would have associated with the national team over the past few years - were all there in abundance on Saturday for this tight-knit group of players, most of whom came of age spectacularly at last year's Summer Olympics in London.

When Qatar took an 11th-minute lead through a penalty, thoughts of "here we go again" would have likely gone through the minds of the country's long-suffering supporters. But, crucially, not the players. If there is one thing that Mahdi Ali, the coach, has instilled in his teams, across several age-group tournaments, it is resilience.

Less than three minutes later, the UAE's outstanding player, Omar Abdulrahman, equalised with a stunning free kick. Further goals by Ali Mabkhout and Mohammed Ahmed sealed a comprehensive and, ultimately, comfortable win.

Clearly, this is a team in Mahdi Ali's own image. Ahmed Khalil, although struggling for form, will continue to lead the attack alongside Mabkhout, with Omar Abdulrahman, the man the fans affectionately call Amoory, conducting play from midfield alongside Amer Abdulrahman. Ismail Matar, the UAE's best player for most of a decade, will have to be content with a place on the bench.

Team spirit is key. In their post-match interviews, all three goalscorers were keen to deflect any credit towards teammates, or "brothers" as one called them. No egos, no misplaced collective arrogance.

The coach led by example. "Whatever we did in that game is history," Mahdi Ali said after the win. "We play Bahrain next and that is where our focus would be from now on. They are the hosts and we are aware what they are capable of."

This humility will certainly be needed against the hosts. Because, all of a sudden, the UAE's supporters and media expect nothing less than a win today. What a difference one match makes. And while Bahrain may have performed poorly in the draw against Oman, the Emirati players, and public, would do well to remember one grim statistic. The UAE have failed to win two consecutive competitive matches since their 2011 Asian Cup qualifiers at home to Malaysia on January 6, 2010 and away to Uzbekistan on March 3, 2010, both narrow 1-0 victories.

Results in the subsequent three years have been dismal to say the least. The Gulf Cup in November 2010 brought scoreless draws against Iraq and Oman, a 3-1 win against Bahrain, and 1-0 semi-final defeat to Saudi Arabia.

After that, results dipped further. At the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar, the UAE kicked off with a 0-0 draw against North Korea before defeats to Iraq (1-0) and Iran (3-0) meant an early exit.

And then came that disastrous campaign to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Five successive defeats were followed by a meaningless 4-2 win in their final match, against Lebanon. That victory in Abu Dhabi on February 28, 2012, was the UAE's only competitive match of the year, and the last one before Saturday's win against Qatar.

Today, the gloom of the past three years could finally be lifted. A win will make it six points out of six in Group A, and see the UAE through to the semi-finals. Once there, as the old football cliche goes, anything can happen. But having witnessed impressive wins by those old Gulf Cup giants Iraq and Kuwait on Sunday, Mahdi Ali will know that either would provide formidable opposition in a potential last-four meeting. Not that he would be so complacent to look that far ahead. For the coach and his players, sky-high confidence is necessarily anchored by modesty.

As Omar Abdulrahman walked off the pitch after the match against Qatar, a reporter for Abu Dhabi Sports television asked him if expectations would now have to be recalibrated after such an impressive win. His answer was as swift as it was reassuring.

"No, we always play to win."

The players clearly think "Khaleeji 21" can be theirs. Another victory tonight, and even the most sceptical of Emirati fans will start to believe as well.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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