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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

World Cup qualifier: Should Omar Abdulrahman sit out, UAE teammates need to stand up against Saudi Arabia

Loss of an outstanding individual, in this case possibly Al Ain playmaker, merely places greater emphasis on the collective.

Omar Abdulrahman has been the UAE's star player for the past few years. Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP
Omar Abdulrahman has been the UAE's star player for the past few years. Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

So if no Omar, what then?

That was the quandary Edgardo Bauza faced on Monday, the UAE manager set to go into Tuesday’s decisive World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia without the UAE’s main man.

Omar Abdulrahman will be assessed late, the Argentine said, given until the final training session on Monday or even the following morning to prove he has recovered from an ankle injury. The feeling is that Abdulrahman will not make it.

The management had anticipated as such. Abdulrahman also. The Al Ain playmaker has spent the past week sensing that a problem sustained before last week’s Asian Champions League clash with Al Hilal, one that required treatment just to get through that first leg of that quarter-final, would not heal enough in time.

Not enough anyway for the UAE’s make-or-break encounter with the Saudis. Not either, most probably, for the campaign-concluding tie against Iraq in Jordan seven days later.

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Lose Abdulrahman and the national team lose their creative fulcrum. Their World Cup hopes - already faint, almost fatal - appear that little more forlorn. An unenviable task grows ever the more difficult.

Abdulrahman is not just the UAE’s most talented player. He is their talisman, too. Yet injury could deprive the side of that, meaning they go into a must-win match against fierce West Asian rivals without Asia’s reigning player of the year.

Bauza has a considerable conundrum to address. Such is Abdulrahman’s ability, the consensus is that a team should be moulded around him. It should be configured to extract the best from one of the continent’s finest.

For the UAE, Abdulrahman sets the tone, as he does for Al Ain, as it was hoped he would for the visit of Saudi Arabia. If sidelined, Bauza needs to find a side line in another way forward.

Just as some observers level at Al Ain, the accusation is that the UAE can at times resemble a one-man team, however unfair both those claims are. That, without Abdulrahman, the national team are incapable of reaching Russia 2018. Yet even with their No 10 ever-present throughout this third and final round of qualification, they have struggled. Abdulrahman struggled against Saudi last time out.

Highlights from UAE's last encounter against Saudi Arabia

Nevertheless, the UAE need to demonstrate there is more to them than their prized asset. Bauza needs to be clever, to display that he is a capable tactician, irrespective of the short time spent with the team since his appointment in May.

Most of all, the players need to step up in their teammate’s absence. Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil, two thirds of the UAE’s “Big Three”, have to step out from Abdulrahman's shadow. They must offer more than they did in June, when the UAE required Mabkhout’s injury-time goal to salvage a draw against Thailand in June.

Back then, and with Abdulrahman on the pitch, Bauza’s side came unstuck against the group’s bottom team. The result was hugely damaging. It is why the UAE face Mission Improbable now. Without Abdulrahman, it could appear Mission Impossible.

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There are others to plug the gap, though. Mohammed Abdulrahman may not be of his brother’s standard - few are - but he excelled last week for Al Ain against Hilal. Tariq Ahmed, although inexperienced at international level, enjoyed a fine end to last season with Al Wahda and would offer plenty on the right.

Ismail Matar, his club teammate and UAE stalwart, is the most experienced player there, despite his limited game-time or that, at 34, his legs do not carry him as far. If only Khalfan Mubarak, Al Jazira’s emerging playmaker, had been included in the squad.

Above all else, the loss of an outstanding individual merely places greater emphasis on the collective. For that, Abdulrahman’s omission should be used as motivation. Because only then can the UAE outlast a typically formidable foe.

Should Abdulrahman sit out, his teammates need to stand up. It is the only way to keep alive their fading World Cup dream.

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AS IT STANDS:

The UAE are fourth in Group B, the final stage of qualification for next summer’s World Cup, six points off a play-off spot with two matches remaining. Only the top two teams are guaranteed a place in Russia, with third place to enter a series of play-offs.

The UAE must therefore defeat both Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and Iraq next week to stand any chance of making only a second World Cup appearance. However, given their situation, they need for either the Saudis or Australia to fail to collect any more points, while also requiring a huge swing in goal difference. At present, the UAE are nine goals worse off than Australia in third and 10 worse off than the second-placed Saudis.