National team's best player has suffered a tear to his anterior cruciate ligament and his participation in the tournament looks all but over
Omar Abdulrahman injury hits UAE hard and deprives 2019 Asian Cup of a star player
It was the news few associated with UAE football wanted to hear.
It had been mooted, since a jarring of the right knee and the stretcher and the tears and the crutches and the conjecture, but confirmation arrived late Tuesday night.
Omar Abdulrahman had suffered a tear to his anterior cruciate ligament on Saturday night, before the Saudi Pro League match against Al Shabab Riyadh had really got going, and the Al Hilal midfielder required surgery. A significant period of rehabilitation, too.
By most estimates, Abdulrahman’s recovery will stretch far beyond the 2019 Asian Cup, the tournament with the UAE as its host, the continent’s greatest prize to be contested without one of the continent’s prized performers.
Abdulrahman is expected to miss the entire event. The UAE will no doubt miss him, since the former Al Ain captain has for some time been his team’s creative fulcrum, the supplier of the key pass, the provider of that final ball for Ali Mabkhout or Ahmed Khalil – the other members of the UAE’s ‘Big Three’ – to add to their international goal tally. Often, Abdulrahman would see a pass where there should not be one, or execute with whichever part of his left foot made most sense to him, but little to the rest of us.
More broadly, the Asian Cup will miss him as well. Abdulrahman shone at the most recent event, almost four years ago, lighting up the tournament in Australia as the UAE took home bronze - their finest result on foreign soil. Abdulrahman departed with the lion’s share of the plaudits, despite Mabkhout capturing the golden boot.
The following year he was crowned Asia’s best player. World Cup ambitions aside, the 2019 Asian Cup on home turf, with Abdulrahman aged 27 and meant to be somewhere close to his peak, was supposed to represent his crowning glory.
Yet, and no matter the reservoir of water under the bridge between then and now, it seems almost guaranteed that he has been starved of the opportunity. And from the outpouring of well wishes and hopes of a rapid recovery sprouts the next question: how do the UAE possibly compensate for the loss?
To some extent, they have been here before. Abdulrahman has a chequered injury record - this will be his third major knee surgery, although first since 2012 - and this year he was absent for the King’s Cup, thought primarily to be punishment for an alleged breaking of curfew at the Gulf Cup of Nations.
Famously, Abdulrahman missed twice from the penalty spot in Kuwait as the UAE lost the final to Oman. In truth, it emphasised the playmaker’s funk at the time. Abdulrahman had been far from his best in national colours for an uncharacteristically protracted period, impacted by injury and dating back to World Cup qualification, and manager Alberto Zaccheroni has struggled to find a system that maximises his star man’s mastery while offering balance to the side.
Now the Italian must shape a team for the Asian Cup no longer able to rely not only on an inconsistent Khalil, but on Abdulrahman. The build-up has been tough: one win and five goals in eight matches. Abdulrahman notched the last, a superb curled effort this month against Honduras, a strike that appeared to reinforce the feeling at Hilal that he was gravitating, finally, towards top form.
Undeniably, filling the sizeable hole left by the slip of a player with a mighty talent constitutes no easy task. At first glance, Khalfan Mubarak sounds the most obvious replacement, a similarly adroit creator who has excelled at Al Jazira during the opening months of the domestic season. He has an unrivalled seven assists.
But Mubarak, 23, has still to replicate that in a UAE jersey, albeit he has rarely been afforded the chance. In two years, he has made five appearances.
Finding an answer to the Abdulrahman conundrum, be it individual or collective, presents Zaccheroni with an unenviable endeavour little more than two months from kick-off against Bahrain on January 5.
Tuesday delivered the news he wished never to receive. He is not alone, for Abdulrahman's Asian Cup absence will be felt far outside the national team's confines.