x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Olympics: UAE can take plenty of heart from footballers' performances

On the basis of the Under 23 teams performances at London 2012, the senior UAE side will be in good hands for years to come, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

UAE's Ismaeil Matar score two of the Emirates' three goals at the Olympics. Andrew Yates / AFP
UAE's Ismaeil Matar score two of the Emirates' three goals at the Olympics. Andrew Yates / AFP

The UAE's Olympic journey, with all its ups and downs, gives hope for the future, Paul Oberjuerge writes from Coventry

That the UAE were excused from the London 2012 Games after three matches that surprised almost no one in world football.

A fixture list of Uruguay, Team Great Britain and Senegal? Not many national sides would count on finishing ahead of two of those three.

But to analyse how the Emiratis played in their now-completed tournament was to find a team suddenly liberated, on the attacking end, but just as suddenly porous, on the defensive - a thorough reversal of form from recent UAE sides.

We may attribute some of the freedom and fun in the UAE attack to Mahdi Ali, the coach, who recognised skill and audacity in players such as Omar Abdulrahman, Ismail Matar, Amer Abdulrahman and Rashid Essa, and turned them loose.

But the UAE leaked six goals in three matches, in England, and much of it was because of sloppy or half-hearted marking. It was not only Srecko Katanec, the former UAE senior coach, who preached "defence-first", it was also Mahdi Ali, during the Olympic qualifying.

His team kept their hopes alive with four clean sheets before erupting for three goals in the memorable finale in Uzbekistan.

Tidying up the back probably will be his first task, once he assumes control of the senior team, which will look rather like this Olympic team, in make-up.

He had settled on a back four for London 2012 early in the five-week training camp, with Hamdan Al Kamali and Ahmed Mohammed in the middle, and Abdulaziz Sanquor on the left and Abdulaziz Hussain on the right, and installed Ali Kasheif in goal.

All of them, however, suffered lapses in London 2012.

Sanquor's failures to track back on the flank led to easy headed goals by Ryan Giggs and Moussa Konate in the final two games, but there was plenty of blame to go around, including for Kasheif, benched after failing to cleanly handle the cross that became the decisive goal in the loss to Team GB at Wembley.

The assumption, in football, is that a disciplined and well-prepared back line is far easier to arrange than it is to find creative attacking players.

So the quality of UAE chances, and the technical skills shown by several players here, should give the UAE confidence about being able to score in future international matches.

Matar, 29, was rejuvenated here. His speed was back, perhaps because he shed five kilograms in training, but perhaps too because he was both healthy and motivated.

Omar Abdulrahman was the revelation of the side, for those who did not know him, with his flair for the dramatic as well as the incisive.

Essa, too, suddenly emerged as a genuine scoring threat, which perhaps only Mahdi Ali anticipated. His goal against Team GB was excellent, and the run he made into the box, and the no-look pass to Matar for the goal, was both cheeky and ingenious.

Amer Abdulrahman struggled in the final two games, but he is an attacking force of real value; the issue in the side seems to be how to field an XI with both him and Omar Abdulrahman in it. One almost certainly is pushed back into a ball-winning defensive role, and neither is particularly well suited to that.

The performance of Ahmed Khalil could be seen as alarming, or as a bad stretch for a player simply out of form at an awkward time. It must be conceded that the side's one "classic" striker was generally useless, and by the third game it appeared he would prefer to avoid the ball altogether. But he is still only 21, and giving up on him as a difference maker surely is premature.

It could be suggested that the coach's stubborn refusal to take Khalil off the pitch until only 25 minutes remained in the tournament was an example of long-range thinking. Ismail Matar may not be around to score six years from now, but Khalil very well could be.

Going forward, the emphasis for Mahdi Ali in these next few years will be on assembling a group who can aspire to make a deep run at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia and get to the final stages of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Winning the 2013 Gulf Cup in Bahrain is a reasonable short-term goal.

Looking around the country, a handful of older players might expect to join the Olympic group: Abdullah Mousa, the left-back; Walid Abbas, the central defender; perhaps Khalid Sabeel, a right-back who could bring some muscle to a side dwarfed by Senegal. Perhaps even Majed Naser, the goalkeeper, if he demonstrates a mastery of his volcanic temper.

The success of qualifying for the Olympics, and the crucible of playing in it, at Old Trafford against Luis Suarez, at Wembley versus Giggs and GB, against a big and athletic team like Senegal, can only make this team better.

The next few years could find a UAE senior side eager to go forward. They ought to be more fun to watch, as well as more successful on the pitch.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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