2018 World Cup qualifier: Five takeaways from UAE’s 1-0 defeat to Australia
The UAE gleaned three points from their opening Group B double-header in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, defeating Japan last week before losing to Australia in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night. With Thailand and Saudi Arabia up next month, John McAuley looks at five ways the UAE can bolster their chances of smoothing the road to Russia.
1.) Ismail Al Hammadi deserves a prominent role
Ismail Al Hammadi was excellent against Japan, and then again at home to Australia. The pocket-rocket winger railed against punishing conditions to offer a constant threat on Tuesday, forever willing to take the ball in tight areas, always prepared to drive at the Australian defence. Last Thursday, he was the same in Saitama. Late on against Australia, he floated a pinpoint cross to Ali Mabkhout, but the UAE striker failed to score with the goal at his mercy. During the past two matches, though, Al Hammadi has rarely foundered. It has only reinforced his ranking in the team, this diminutive wideman with the colossal courage now not far behind Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Mabkhout as the team’s leading lights. In the past, Al Hammadi has been the one to drop out when Mahdi Ali sought another way forward. A regular performer, he has confirmed he justifies a regular start.
2). Majed Hassan is Khamis Esmail’s obvious partner
Against Australia, Amer Abdulrahman struggled significantly, unable to live up to his billing as one of the UAE’s most accomplished performers. The midfielder was repeatedly caught on the ball, his fitness questionable, his typically precise passing alluding him. He toiled last week in Japan, too. But for injury, Majed Hassan would be an obvious replacement. The Al Ahli midfielder is still recovering from surgery to his cruciate ligament and is not due back until November. Yet when he does return, he seems a natural comrade for Khamis Esmail at the base of the UAE midfield. Hassan does not shirk responsibility or succumb to pressure, as evidenced in last year’s Asian Champions League final second leg in China. He is tenacious and technically sound. It is hoped Abdulrahman can still recapture old form at new club Al Ain, but at present he remains some way from that. Hassan represents the long-term option.
3). Full-backs need freshening up
It has long been an area of comparative weakness, and thus a topic of much debate. The UAE’s full-backs usually flit between Walid Abbas, Mohammed Ahmed, Abdulaziz Haikal and Abdulaziz Sanqour. When the latter got injured against Japan last week, Mohammed Fayez was called up to the squad, while Mohammed Fawzi is a frequent reserve. Before his summer switch to Al Jazira, it meant the entire full-back contingent comprised entirely of Al Ahli and Al Ain defenders. However, there is real talent elsewhere. For instance, Mahmoud Khamis and Ahmed Al Yassi, teammates at Al Nasr, have shone in recent seasons, with Al Yassi a blatant contender to become the UAE’s first-choice right-back. He is disciplined, dedicated and possesses the intelligence international football requires. Khamis, meanwhile, was called up to the recent King’s Cup in Thailand. He and his club colleague merit inclusion in this run at Russia 2018.
4). Veteran Ismail Matar can still play a part
For Australia late on Tuesday, right when they needed a spark, Ange Postecoglou introduced Tim Cahill, the country’s all-time leading scorer. Minutes later, the former Everton forward had struck the game’s decisive blow, sealing the points and maintaining Australia’s perfect start to Group B. Even if a lack of fitness prevented Cahill from a greater role in his side’s two matches this past week, his influence in and around the squad is obvious. In Ismail Matar, the UAE have a similar figure. The Al Wahda striker is highly regarded among the current crop: scorer of the winner in the 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations final, a leader on the pitch, someone to look up to off it. While his playing time would be limited – Matar could be granted cameo roles when required – his experience and big-game savvy should be utilised around the national team set-up. Matar can be an important motivational tool.
5). A super-sub striker is required
The match-winner against Japan last week, Ahmed Khalil offered little up front on Tuesday, although not through lack of effort. His partner in attack, Ali Mabkhout, laboured too, when his touch let him down at crucial moments. However, there can be no denying the pair’s prowess: Khalil has 13 goals in his past 10 World Cup qualifiers, is the current Asian Player of the Year and usually finds the net in the most important matches. For his part, Mabkhout top-scored at the 2014 Gulf Cup and last year’s Asian Cup, while 2015/16 was his most productive domestic campaign. Yet a little help is needed to ease the burden on the UAE’s front duo. Currently, Salem Saleh represents the first-choice backup, thanks to a fine conclusion to last season with Al Nasr. But his starts at club level are limited, thus limiting Mahdi Ali’s options. Al Wahda’s Mohammed Al Akberi perhaps warrants more game time.
• Mark Milligan: Australia’s win over UAE ‘won’t mean anything’ without more points
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Updated: September 7, 2016 04:00 AM