x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

For UAE football, old ones like Ismail Matar can still be the best

When the UAE was without one of their rising stars in Omar Abdulrahman, the home crowd backed them up and the team looked to veteran Ismail Matar, who took care of the rest, writes Ali Khaled.

UAE teammates celebrate by tossing Ismail Matar in the air following their 2-1 win over Uzbekistan in an Asian Cup qualifier in Abu Dhabi on Friday night. Satish Kumar / The National
UAE teammates celebrate by tossing Ismail Matar in the air following their 2-1 win over Uzbekistan in an Asian Cup qualifier in Abu Dhabi on Friday night. Satish Kumar / The National

They arrived wondering how their team would cope without their new hero. They left singing the praises of the old one. But not without a scare or two along the way.

Without Omar Abdulrahman on Friday night at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the UAE's first home match since winning the 2013 Gulf Cup threatened to fall flat, before the intervention of Ismail Matar eventually ensured a happy homecoming against Uzbekistan.

The last time the UAE had played in this stadium, a 2-1 friendly win against Estonia in November, less than 400 fans turned up to see them off to Bahrain. Last night, almost 22,000 came to see the 2015 Asian Cup qualifier, although the stadium was well short of full capacity. In reality, there was no excuses for a poor turnout; a sunny day, cool temperatures, and on a Friday afternoon, too. Even the injured Abdulrahman joined in, posing for photos with his fans.

And yet the first half, from a Emirati point of view, failed to ignite. The fans in the North Stand in particular were in fine voice, but the team looked a shadow of the one that beat all comers in January. After all the praise that had been heaped on them in the last few months, here was a timely reminder that a higher calibre of opposition must be overcome if continental success is to be achieved.

The Uzbekistan team, brilliantly led by captain Djeparov Server, pressed the UAE high up the pitch, denying the home players the kind of space that the likes of Qatar and Bahrain had so generously ceded at the Gulf Cup. Here were technically proficient opposition that did not panic under pressure and were happy to keep possession for long periods. And initial probing from the excellent Amer Abdulrahman, Shohruh Gadoev's early goal rocked the UAE, who struggled for fluency throughout the rest of the half.

One particular moment summed up the lethargy of the first half; Ali Mabkhout allowing a cross from Ahmed Khalil to sail over his head without even a pretence of an attempt to get to it. The crowd howled its disapproval. On the touchline, coach Mahdi Ali was already planning his changes.

Even the half-time break brought a sense of disappointment. As the Uzbeki players went through a series of precise drills, the Emirati reserves casually juggled the ball and joked among themselves. A serious intervention was needed.

And it came with the introduction of squad captain Matar, who replaced Ismail Al Hammadi, once again the fall guy. The mood was instantly transformed. The UAE started to press the opposition defence energetically once again, hinting at the powers of recovery they so brilliantly showed in Bahrain. The crowd responded with chants of "Emirati, Emirati".

When the equaliser came, it was from the trusted right foot of Khalil, one of the Gulf Cup heroes. The stadium erupted, mostly in relief. A few minutes later, that relief turned to joy, Mabkhout finishing brilliantly after getting on the end of Amer Abdulrahman's incisive pass.

"UAE, UAE, UAE," sang the crowd. The lions of Manama were back.

Despite a heart-stopping few seconds during which the post intervened either side of two saves by goalkeeper Ali Kasheif, the UAE held on for the three points to the backdrop of a wonderful atmosphere. Australia 2015 looks a lot closer now.

Above all, the question of how the team would cope without its talisman were answered emphatically. And there was little doubt as to where the inspiration came from, with the players hurling Matar in the air to the delight of the crowd who had mostly stayed behind to acknowledge their comeback.

Tellingly, the celebrating players would not start their lap of honour before all the substitutes had joined. No reserves, everyone is first choice, as Mahdi Ali has drummed it into his players time and again.

In the stands, the new hero would have enjoyed the celebration as much as the old one did on the pitch.


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