x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Another job well done for UAE football

Against Hong Kong, the UAE show plenty of range in attack to the delight of their fans, writes Ali Khaled.

UAE players thank the fans at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi following their 4-0 thrashing of Hong Kong on Friday night. Abdullateef Al Marzouqi / Al Ittihad
UAE players thank the fans at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi following their 4-0 thrashing of Hong Kong on Friday night. Abdullateef Al Marzouqi / Al Ittihad

The outcome was never really in doubt. A rampant UAE were expected to beat a limited Hong Kong team, and beat them well. The fans, not to mention recent form, demanded it.

And got it, the UAE extending their unbeaten run to 18 matches with a 4-0 win at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Friday night.

Qualification to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia had been almost guaranteed since the UAE’s 4-0 victory in Hong Kong in October, and was confirmed with ease. Last night was a celebration, a homecoming for a team that has coasted through the qualifying campaign.

For Mahdi Ali, however, it was a chance to gauge the progress of his Emirati team. What few new lessons he would have learned were positive.

The goalkeeper was barely called into action throughout, and the defence was given so much time and space to knock the ball about, this at times resembled a training session. For them, tougher tests await.

Despite controlling the match from the first whistle, it took the UAE attack nearly half an hour to make the breakthrough. Omar Abdulrahman played a defence-splitting pass for Ismail Matar who squared for Salem Saleh to tap in the opener.

The goal would have brought a smile to the coach; as in last week’s friendly against the Philippines, both Matar and Saleh were brought in as replacements for the first-choice striking partnership of Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil.

While Khalil’s international form continues to be erratic, Mabkhout, who was suspended for this match, has been in sensational form, scoring eight in UAE colours in their previous four matches.

Mahdi Ali will rest easy knowing that his reserves, though he would never call them that, can step up when called into action.

The coach would have been even happier with the second goal, an excellent volley by the rapidly improving Walid Abbas, who is making a habit of scoring goals for his country.

The left back was brilliant in Hong Kong last month, scoring the late fourth goal, and was once again on the score sheet against the Philippines. That left-back position would seem to be one that the coach can count on, as well.

The UAE were coasting, and as ever Abdulrahman was at the heart of their best moves. As the first half came to an end, the players were treated to stunning rendition of the national anthem by the crowd of just over 10,000, scarfs aloft.

With the match as good as over, Mahdi Ali used the second half to try out some aspiring players. Mohammed Abdulrahman, Omar’s brother, came in for Majed Hassan and Saleh, having done his bit, was replaced by Ismail Al Hammadi.

In the middle, Omar continued to pull the strings, often picking out passes not even his teammates could anticipate.

One particular stunning pass with the outside of his left foot left Abbas with free header which he put over the bar. Another led to his brother hitting the bar with a looping flick.

Finally, with 10 minutes left, the inevitable, a precise left-footed finish from the golden boy to make it 3-0.

Seconds later he left the pitch to a standing ovation, replaced by Haboosh Saleh.

It seems safe to say that the UAE’s hopes of success in Australia will rest mostly on Abdulrahman’s shoulders.

There was time for a final flourish, Al Hammadi making it 4-0 with a fine header in the 88th minute.

The match ended with the crowd serenading every pass, and a smiling Diego Maradona posing for pictures with celebrating Emirati fans in the stands. Another 4-0 win. Job done.

This is a team clearly bursting with confidence that comes with such a spectacular run of form. As the last of the 2014 World Cup qualifying issues get wrapped up this week, how the Emirati fans must wish this squad was the one that kicked off the UAE’s own campaign against Kuwait back in 2011, and not the one that disastrously lost five consecutive matches.

But while the fans will be watching next summer’s action in Brazil enviously, wondering what might have been, Mahdi Ali would have been wishing the Asian Cup was kicking of in January of 2014 and not a year later.

It would be tempting to say this is a team at the peak of its powers, but perhaps judgement should be held until they come against stronger opposition. In any case, Mahdi Ali, ever the perfectionist, will no doubt demand his talented team reach new heights when they go down under.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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