Mohaned Salem standing tall in defence for UAE
The match may have been decided by the slightest of margins, but the identity of its best player was as clear as daylight.
There were many heroes in the UAE’s Asian Cup quarter-final win over Japan, but Mohaned Salem stood head and shoulders above all around him on Friday night in Sydney.
UAE coach Mahdi Ali had identified the match as one where the beautiful game would be sacrificed for blood-and-guts football. He could do that because at the heart of his defence he has the giant Salem.
But the 29-year-old defender was not always a key member of the squad. Salem is a late bloomer.
Four years ago, he was fourth-choice centre-back at his club Al Ain, and the occasional appearance came when those ahead of him got injured or suspended. His career was stalling.
Few people know Salem’s game as much as Liam Weeks, who is head of performance analysis at Al Jazira but was previously at Al Ain.
“We worked really hard with him to quicken up his game,” Weeks said. “He would take maybe six or seven touches per possession, which meant the opposition had time to reorganise behind the ball and it became difficult for us to penetrate.
“A lot of work was done using ProZone [a post-match analysis tool providing physical and technical information regarding performance] to show him how to quicken up his game, how to receive the ball and play it into midfield or to play first time.
“We knew that he had the physical attributes of a top centre-back, if only we could get him to play quicker.”
It is a sign of his dedication that he quickly became a regular for club and country, playing a big part in the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations win in Bahrain.
“He took our advice on board, and now when you watch him, you can see him playing the ball early into Amer Abdulrahman or Khamis Ismail,” Weeks said.
For long periods, the quarter-final was played in and around the UAE penalty area.
Japan’s manager Javier Aguirre said that the UAE players had played “the match of their lives”, and no one typified the heroic, battling performance more than Salem, which was no surprise to Weeks.
“His professionalism and work ethic are among the best that I’ve seen,” he said.
“He will give 100 per cent in everything he does. Even in training he is throwing himself at the feet of an attacker to prevent a goal. He really puts his body on the line for the team.”
The modest defender played down his personal contribution, spreading the praise to the likes of the underrated clubmate and defensive partner Mohammed Ahmed and Ismail in centre midfield.
“We played a strong team, an organised team. It was not an easy match,” Salem said. “Our coach put his imprint on this match, focusing on the high balls and making sure we don’t concede.
“I thank all the players. We defended from the front, there was a high level of concentration, it was a heroic performance.”
They will need another one if they are to overcome Australia on Tuesday night.
Salem will likely be tasked with marking Tim Cahill, while his fellow defenders will need to cut out the service, especially crosses, from the excellent Robbie Kruse, Massimo Luongo and Mathew Leckie.
“Tuesday’s game will be a real test for Mohaned. Cahill is deadly in the air,” Weeks said.
“However, this is also one of Mohaned’s biggest strengths. Cahill’s runs off the ball in the penalty area are world-class. Good communication between [goalkeeper] Majed Naser, Mohammed Ahmed and Mohaned will be key in managing and preventing Cahill from getting on the scoresheet.”
Naser’s return to the international fold has been a masterstroke by Mahdi Ali, but Salem has become the organiser on the pitch, the team’s de facto captain.
“For me, he has every quality that you would want in a captain,” Weeks said.
“He is warm and approachable, encourages his teammates and lets people know when their standards aren’t up to his. He would also ensure that all of the players were praying together and would often lead the prayers before training and matches, and at half time.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning, still at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Salem was asked how he felt.
“Happiness,” he said. “I’ve never felt like this before.”
He is a man at peace with, and at the peak of, his game – unrecognisable from the stuttering player of a few years ago.
Before boarding the bus, he offered another glimpse of steely determination.
“Our aim was to get to the semi-final,” Salem said. “But now it is to get to the final, and win it.”
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Updated: January 24, 2015 04:00 AM