Baring a shock home defeat against Hong Kong on Friday, the UAE’s qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia will leave Mahdi Ali with over a year in which to prepare his team for a shot at glory, writes Ali Khaled.
Now is not the time for UAE football to get complacent
The UAE’s stock continues to rise. Mahdi Ali’s men are 71st in the Fifa world rankings off the back of a 17-match unbeaten run that has left them also within touching distance of reaching the 2015 Asian Cup.
In stark contrast to their qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup, the UAE have made rapid progress in their qualifying Group E for the 2015 tournament in Australia.
The Emirates boast a maximum return of nine points from three matches in the four-team group, with a home match against Hong Kong on Friday. A 4-0 win over the same opposition last month at Mong Kok Stadium means a draw will be enough to take the UAE through to the finals.
However, based on their present form, another victory for a team increasingly viewed as one of the best in Asia looks on the cards.
Over the past year, all continental rivals have been dispatched. On Saturday, the UAE defeated the Philippines 4-0 in a friendly at Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi thanks to goals by Al Wahda pair Salem Saleh and Ismail Matar as well as substitute Ali Mabkhout and Al Ahli defender Walid Abbas. Mabkhout also scored a hat-trick and Abbas hit a late goal in the previous qualifier against Hong Kong.
The team may well be in an enviable position, but there is little chance of Mahdi Ali allowing complacency to creep in.
This season, he and his players have raised the bar. Winning September’s OSN Cup (a four-team friendly tournament against Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand) meant the UAE had picked up were they left off before the summer, having won the Gulf Cup for a second time in January.
Still, Friday’s match could be the last meaningful fixture for the UAE for some time; assuming three points are procured against Hong Kong, and with it qualification for Australia 2015, it will render the last two qualifiers — against Vietnam in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday and Uzbekistan in Tashkent on March 5 — nothing more than dead rubbers.
The situation would leave Mahdi Ali with over a year in which to ensure that national team’s current sharpness is not blunted. This year, the Emirati coach showed that he is not afraid of allowing his squad long stretches without a full international — a contrast to most international sides, who make use of every Fifa international match day to play a friendly.
Between the qualifying win over Uzbekistan in Abu Dhabi on March 22 and the start of the OSN Cup on September 5, the UAE did not play a single game, the coach preferring to allow his players time with their clubs.
The policy worked, but now the balancing act must be repeated across the entirety of 2014. Much can change in that time.
Injuries and loss of form will invariably lead to a tweaked squad, as will the emergence of young players. On the positive side, there is also a chance that some Emirati players, most likely Omar Abdulrahman or his namesake Amer, could be playing abroad by the time the tournament starts in January 2015.
Mahdi Ali will not entertain such thoughts, not in front of the media, anyway. Only Hong Kong will be on his mind at this point.
He is a strong advocate of the group over the individual. In the long term, he will be aware of the benefits that any member of his squad playing in foreign leagues would bring to the national team.
On Friday, he will be looking for a third consecutive clean sheet, although unfortunately Mabkhout’s stunning goalscoring run for his country will be interrupted by a one-match suspension.
The Al Jazira striker has scored eight international goals this season and three in the Arabian Gulf League, but Mahdi Ali will now likely partner Matar and Ahmed Khalil in attack. Omar Abdulrahman will once again be the man tasked with providing the UAE strikers, presuming he shrugs off a knock that saw him leave the field on a stretcher against the Philippines.
The playmaker is no longer the UAE’s secret weapon and now has to cope with being singled out by the opposition.
As the UAE were beating New Zealand in the final of the OSN Cup at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, the Saudi commentator on the sponsoring television channel could barely contain his admiration for the 22-year-old Al Ain star.
“Oh how lucky you are to have him,” he said.
Lucky to have him, to have a successful team, and for the first time in a generation, to approach a new year with genuine expectations rather than just hope.
Baring a surprise result on Friday, 2014 should be a long period of preparation.
Already, eyes are turning to Australia 2015.
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