Cautioned against going all out in attack against Uzbekistan, the coach's cavalier approach paid dividends in the qualifying match.
Attacking is 'their natural state of mind', says UAE coach Mahdi Ali
TASHKENT // Mahdi Ali's assistants counselled caution. Defend early and defend in numbers, they said. He heard them out. He chose to attack.
After 90 heart-in-mouth minutes, after a comeback from a 2-0 deficit to a 3-2 victory over Uzbekistan in grey and soggy Tashkent, Ali's cold-blooded decision had been shown to be the correct one. If only just.
"Most of my assistants said we should stay back, pick them up as they crossed the middle of the field, make them work hard for a goal," the UAE's Olympic team coach said.
He conceded that he considered it. A sort of "calcio comes to central Asia" negativity that might well have worked; 0-0 would not have been pretty to watch, but it would have been enough to qualify his team for the 2012 London Olympics. And the UAE had held Uzbekistan 0-0 in Al Ain in November.
Ali ultimately decided his side were more likely to get the draw they needed by trying to score from the outset.
"I know my players, and they want to go forward," he said. "This is their natural state of mind. They would think I did not have faith in them, if we played defence the whole match.
"If we gave up the first goal, then my players' morale would be very low, and we would have to attack from a defensive mindset."
It must be conceded, however, that Ali appeared to have made the wrong choice, 46 minutes into the match.
Despite his team having most of the ball the UAE trailed 2-0. The first goal, in particular, came in a fashion that a tightly compact defence probably would not have allowed: a deflection, an unmarked man on the edge of the box, the goalkeeper off his line.
Down by two goals, Ali was prepared to insert another attacking player into the game, he said, and to play with only three at the back. But then Ahmed Khalil fired in a goal from a free kick in the 50th minute.
Ali had the third forward, Ali Mabhkout, stand down.
Four minutes later, the attack-minded Emiratis scored again. Omar Abdulrahman flicked a ball to Khalil, who buried it from just outside the box.
In added time, Haboush Saleh got a third goal for the UAE, in a counter-attack with Mabhkout, and the Emiratis had victory as well as qualification in what was, arguably, the most exciting and rewarding game played by a UAE national team in a generation.
Ali said he had confidence that came from long years with his players. "The guys were up to the challenge," he said. "You know, when they want it, they go get it."