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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Points to ponder for Bauza's UAE ahead of World Cup qualifier against Iraq

John McAuley lists five issues UAE management will consider as they prepare for must-win match.

Ali Mabkhout, No 7, and his UAE teammates were excellent against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ali Mabkhout, No 7, and his UAE teammates were excellent against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The UAE can cope without Omar

Injured before last week’s Asian Champions League clash with Al Hilal, an encounter he still played through, Omar Abdulrahman was not deemed fit enough to take part on Tuesday. So the UAE had to do without their standout star for a must-win match against their chief rivals. Instead, Abdulrahman was sent to Barcelona to receive medical attention. He will not be back in time for Iraq. Yet the UAE showed they can not only survive without him, but thrive. Although 34, Ismail Matar excelled in his place. Mohammed Abdulrahman, his brother, impressed as a second-half substitute. The midfield looked balanced and strong defensively. Undoubtedly, the UAE are a better team with Abdulrahman at its heart, but they came through in his absence. Going forward, it proved it is the collective that matters most.

Explainer: How UAE can still qualify for World Cup finals

UAE duo Ahmed Khalil, centre, and Ali Mabkhout, right, stepped up in the absence of Omar Abdulraman on Tuesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National
UAE duo Ahmed Khalil, centre, and Ali Mabkhout, right, stepped up in the absence of Omar Abdulraman on Tuesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Khalil and Mabkhout live up to their billing

With Abdulrahman missing on Tuesday, the UAE’s “Big Three” was cut to two. Undeniably, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout are the team's most recognisable stars after Abdulrahman, but in recent matches they had frustrated. Already fine reputations were far from reinforced. But then Mabkhout scored what he described as his best goal for the national team, displaying supreme control and a fine finish. It arrived moments after the Saudis had taken the lead. Not to be outdone, Khalil grabbed the winner, thundering a shot from range high into the opposition net. Now he has 16 goals and sits joint-top in the scoring charts for the entire 2018 World Cup qualification. With his goal, meanwhile, Mabkhout showed the class that sealed the Golden Boot at the 2015 Asian Cup. A welcome return to form for both, it has to continue.

Watch Mabkhout's superb strike

Bauza hints at what is to come

It was an inauspicious start to Edgardo Bauza’s tenure. Appointed in May, the Argentine took his new side to Thailand in June, but his UAE debut ended in a hugely damaging draw. It even required an injury-time goal to salvage a point. Thailand were, and remain, the group’s bottom team. Straightaway, the pressure piled on Bauza, despite the limited time with his new charges. Then on Tuesday, he devised a game plan to defeat Saudi Arabia. Bauza set up the UAE in a 4-3-1-2 formation – a welcome break from the 4-4-2 that had become prosaic and predictable during Mahdi Ali's reign. It provided a solid base and allowed the team to utilise Khalil and Mabkhout. It suggested the UAE will, finally, become more tactically flexible. Bauza should get only better as he adapts to his new role.

Suspensions could hit hard

Mahmoud Khamis received a red card late on, sent off moments from time for a second bookable offence. As such, the UAE left-back departed the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium with a blot on an otherwise stellar performance, ruling him out of the campaign concluder against Iraq next week. Mabkhout will miss out as well, as will midfielder Khamis Esmail. Both collected Already on a booking from previous matches, they both collected another. Abdulrahman, meanwhile, will not be back in time. Subsequently, Ahmed Al Attas and Mohammed Abdulbasit have been called into the squad. While they are talented, the UAE will miss four key players for what is another must-win match. Their World Cup hopes, however faint, depend on the decider in Jordan. It requires another, unfortunately enforced, rejig from Bauza.

Also from John McAuley:

Building momentum for Iraq and beyond

The record was regrettable, a sign that a familiar foe possessed a physical and psychological advantage. The UAE had not defeated Saudi Arabia in more than a decade, not since the semi-final victory in the 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations. Of the past nine meetings before Tuesday, the Saudis had won eight and drawn the other. However, the UAE out-fought and out-thought their neighbours. It was a victory constructed upon commitment, cunning and a couple of elite-level goals. Even if the World Cup dream ends in Iraq next week, the UAE must take heart from defeating a dominant rival. They had triumphed in the ‘Clasico’, as Bauza labelled it pre-match. Thus, the UAE laid a platform for December’s Gulf Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup – on home soil – too. They need to build on that.