2018 World Cup qualifier: UAE’s road to Russia hits a dent, but dream is far from over
ABU DHABI // The dream of a nation lives on. Even if a player technically employed from Abu Dhabi did his best to puncture the optimism surrounding the UAE’s bid for 2018 World Cup qualification.
Tim Cahill emerged from the substitutes bench with 18 minutes to go at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Within three minutes, he had found enough space to net his 48th goal for Australia, giving the away side three more precious points towards qualification.
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Australia’s most celebrated player signed for Melbourne City last month, whose parent organisation is City Football Group, founded and owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Minister of Presidential Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister..
His decisive cameo in the capital was perhaps an apt illustration of the challenge facing the national team to make good on their dream of qualification.
The supporters said as much before kick off, when the “tifo” mosaic they formed in the main stand spelt out the words, “The dream of a nation,” alongside a banner depicting the World Cup logo.
This set of UAE players are harbouring the ambition of going to their first World Cup, in 2018 in Russia. The 1990 competition remains the only time to date the national team have played at international football’s showpiece event.
Compare that to Cahill. He was on the scoresheet at each of the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and recently intimated he is still eager for more in two years’ time.
His winner, which was the result from a fine left-wing cross by Brad Smith, tempered the good vibrations the national team created last week with a stunning win away in Japan.
Three points from two tough opening matches in Group B is hardly a disaster, though. The dream has barely even started yet. As Mahdi Ali, the UAE manager, said afterwards, this is but a minor battle lost.
It was not short of skirmishes, either. The tone was set 45 minutes before kick off, when Australia’s three goalkeepers were welcomed during their warm-up with a chorus of boos from the sizeable crowd already assembled. As the keepers laughed off the jeers, the public address announcer asked the fans for “more, more, more”.
It was not just heat from the fans that made the atmosphere intemperate. When they alighted the air-conditioned team bus on arrival at the ground, the players must have felt like they had walked into the world’s largest steam room.
Predictably, the tempo quickly dropped. By half time, the pace of play was about half a yard faster than Subbuteo.
And, similarly understandably, tempers also frayed. Khamis Ismail wiped out Robbie Kruse with a robust tackle. Ismail Al Hammadi was flattened off the ball. Ali Mabkhout squared up to Mark Milligan. And all of it went unpunished by, Mohammed Amirul, the Malaysian referee.
Even Mahdi Ali, usually a vision of calmness in the UAE technical area, was affected. When the whistle blew for the interval, he irritably strode on the field to confront the referee and one of his assistants.
It felt entirely out of character from the UAE manager, but it was only resolved when his staff encouraged him off the field.
The exact subject of his ire was not obvious, but it likely related to some heavy treatment meted out to his players. Omar Abdulrahman, in particular, was lucky to walk away from a 12th minute challenge by Milligan.
Milligan, Australia’s captain for the night in the absence of the injured Mile Jedinak, is a resident of Abu Dhabi. Playing his club football for Baniyas in the Arabian Gulf League, he must know better than most the influence Abdulrahman can have on a match. He was lucky to escape censure for his early lunge on the UAE playmaker.
That said, the Australians were deserving winners, as they fashioned the majority of the best chances.
Aaron Mooy, who represented perpetual motion as much as anyone on a night where moving anywhere was exhausting, hit the crossbar on the hour.
Less than a minute later, Mabkhout blazed a volley over after the UAE created their best opening, but the last word was left to Cahill.
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Updated: September 6, 2016 04:00 AM