x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gulf Cup: UAE 2 Oman 0

Mahdi Ali fields reserve side before substitute Ahmed Khalil's late brace bails them out.

UAE fans cheers their side against Oman. Ali Al Saadi / AFP
UAE fans cheers their side against Oman. Ali Al Saadi / AFP

On the eve of the game, the UAE coach Mahdi Ali claimed all 23 of his players in Bahrain were at the same level.

Unfortunately, his reserves failed to back up those words in a 2-0 win over Oman last night.

Good thing that Ahmed Khalil bailed them out.

Taking the pitch with eight new names in the starting XI, the UAE failed to match their performances from the first two games and Mahdi Ali was eventually forced to bring out his big guns, Omar Abdulrahman and Khalil, as Oman rode roughshod.

The move paid rich dividends as Khalil struck twice in the final six minutes to make sure the UAE enter the Gulf Cup semi-finals undefeated. "Of course it is natural that the team that has no option but to win will pile the pressure on," Mahdi Ali said.

"We knew that in the second half, if they keep pressing they will leave spaces for us to attack, and the boys succeeded in exploiting that." Oman will return home with just one point from three games.

They finished with 10 men after Hassan Mudhafar was given a red card in the 89th minute for grabbing Habboush Saleh, another UAE substitute, as he made a dash for the box.

Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, the former chief of the UAE Football Association, was in the stands, sitting not among the dignitaries but the fans. He must have been pleased with the final result. Al Rumaithi had played a big part in the development of this squad through the junior ranks.

Al Rumaithi was the FA chief in 2009 as well, when Mahdi Ali's team impressed critics on their way to the quarter-final at the Youth World Cup in Egypt.

True to his pre-match promise, Mahdi Ali retained only three of the starters from the first two matches: Mohammed Ahmed, Ismail Al Hammadi and Amer Abdulrahman.

Khalid Eissa took over the goalkeeper's duties from his Al Jazira's teammate, Ali Khasief, while Ahmed had Walid Abbas, Mohannad Salem and Abdulaziz Hussain alongside him in defence.

Abdulrahman and Al Hammadi teamed-up with Mohammed Fawzi and Habib Al Fardan in midfield, while Saeed Al Kathiri and Ismail Matar were the spearheads.

The new UAE formations took some time settling in and Oman tried to take advantage in the early stages, but without much success.

Gradually, the Whites - wearing red for this game - gained better control and Al Kathiri tested the Omani keeper from outside the box in the 24th minute.

That was the first shot on goal for the game, by either team. And it remained the only real chance of the first session as both teams struggled to find fluency.

Coming out of the break, Oman showed more urgency and Mudhafar almost put them ahead with a blistering shot in the opening minute.

Seconds later, Abdulaziz Al Muqbali watched as his volley trundled across the goal, missing the target by a little. In an effort to regain some control of the game, Ali made a double substitution just after the hour mark, sending out Khalil and Saleh for Ismail Matar and Ismail Al Hammadi.

The changes made no impressions on the Omanis as they kept attacking in waves, keeping the UAE defence and keeper on tenterhooks.

Mahdi Ali was eventually forced to turn to Abdulrahman, an early favourite for the player of the tournament, in the 81st minute. His mere presence on the pitch turned UAE's fortune around as Khalil broke the deadlock in the 84th minute following a crisp one-two with Amer Abdulrahman inside the box.

"I'm happy Ahmed [Khalil] came back with the two goals, we knew he needed those and we told him to have confidence in himself," Ali said.

"I had always planned on bringing him on in the second half."

Khalil said his perseverance paid off. "I will say one thing, I might not have been at my best in recent matches but I will always give my all on the pitch," he said.

"And now I feel that today's performance will give me huge confidence for the coming matches."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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