2018 World Cup qualifier: Ahmed Khalil and Ismail Matar get UAE back on road to Russia
ABU DHABI // After the humbling in Saudi Arabia, came the relative high of Iraq.
The UAE notched a crucial victory at the Mohammed bin Zayed on Tuesday night, in part consigning to the past last month’s demoralising defeat in Jeddah, while at the same time breathing fresh life into their bid to reach a second World Cup.
As is so often the case, Ahmed Khalil stepped up for his country, opening the scoring just before the half-hour with a thunderous volley that clattered the underside of the crossbar and sent the home support dizzy in celebration.
A 15th goal in 13 matches on the road to Russia 2018, the Al Ahli striker put the UAE on the path to a vital win, later made certain by substitute Ismail Matar, made all the more significant given Australia’s earlier draw in Thailand.
At the halfway stage, the two sides are locked on nine points in Group B, trailing second-placed Japan and pool leaders Saudi Arabia by one. Five matches left as they chase what manager Mahdi Ali has labelled their ultimate dream, the UAE’s mission to Moscow and beyond promises more twists and turns yet.
For now, though, they will be happy simply to have rebounded from the Saudi Arabia loss, a hugely disheartening result that threatened to derail their World Cup ambitions and amped up the pressure on Mahdi Ali.
Against Iraq, a side in fifth place but hot off the back of their first group victory four weeks previously, the UAE manager opted to return goalkeeper Ali Khaseif and defender Walid Abbas to the starting line-up, with Mohammed Abdulrahman preferred to winger Ismail Al Hammadi.
Yet the hosts looked slightly disjointed in the opening exchanges in a discernibly feisty affair, the tone set when Omar Abdulrahman was flattened in the first minute. The Al Ain playmaker later screwed a shot just wide, but that was the only real moment of note until Khalil’s contribution.
In the 26th minute, the forward released right-back Abdulaziz Sanqour, whose blocked cross found its way back to Khalil, leaving him to volley a powerful effort high past Mohammed Hameed in the Iraq goal.
The UAE had their lead, the relief palpable among the crowd.
At the other end, though, the visitors gave notice of their menace on the break, but Al Nasr’s striker Mohannad Abdulraheem could only lift his effort into Khaseif’s side-netting. Iraq may have lost their first three fixtures in the group, but they were narrowly defeated by Saudi Arabia and Japan and had been suitably buoyed by last month’s 4-0 thrashing of Thailand.
They searched for an equaliser in the second half, although they struggled to gain any traction until late on. Omar Abdulrahman, recently shortlisted for the Asian Player of the Year award, did not have his finest outing for the home side, yet he twice tested Hameed from distance.
Khalil was withdrawn in the 75th minute, given a rapturous send-off since his strike had provided the UAE an advantage that, ultimately, they would not relinquish.
Soon after they needed a rather large helping hand from Khaseif, however, particularly 11 minutes from time, when the UAE No 1 lunged to his left to repel substitute Ayman Hussein’s glanced header. Moments later, Khaseif smothered Ahmed Ibrahim’s directed header. Taking the place of Majed Naser, he had justified his call-up and more.
If only Ali Mabkhout was as decisive. The Al Jazira forward has enjoyed a superb start to the domestic season, but was off-colour throughout against Iraq, his night summed up neatly once he failed to connect with a free header in front of goal. Then, as the clock ticked towards its conclusion, Mohanad Salem blocked brilliantly to deny Abdulraheem when baring down on Khaseif.
There was still time for Matar to seal the win, placing home in injury time to grant the UAE a much-needed reprieve, endowing them with renewed belief. Still fourth in Group B, they can now go forth with fresh impetus. The campaign resumes next March, on an altogether firmer footing.
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Updated: November 15, 2016 04:00 AM