x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Omar Abdulrahman has Premier League potential

The young playmaker saved Al Ain from relegation last season, and this year he was instrumental in the UAE team reaching London 2012, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Omar Abdulrahman’s season for Al Ain, left, has been interupted by injury, while his appearances for the UAE Olympic squad were crucial in the national side qualifying for London.
Omar Abdulrahman’s season for Al Ain, left, has been interupted by injury, while his appearances for the UAE Olympic squad were crucial in the national side qualifying for London.

If Al Ain defeat Al Jazira next week and clinch their 10th Pro League championship, the club will have Omar Abdulrahman to thank.

Not necessarily for what he has contributed in a league season abbreviated by surgery, but for what he did a year ago, when he almost single-handedly kept Al Ain from the ultimate indignity: relegation.

On March 31, 2011, Al Ain were on 11 points from 14 matches and had not won a league game for 208 days. They also were in the drop zone.

Their little midfielder, then only 19 years old, took the big club on his back, scoring six goals in seven matches as Al Ain racked up 14 points to avoid relegation.

In the season's second-last match, he had the first two goals in a 4-1 victory over Jazira, their only defeat in a championship season, and that result secured for Al Ain their place in the top flight. Otherwise, their dominant performance this year might have come in the second division.

Abdulrahman missed the first half of this season after his second knee surgery, but club and country saw what they had been missing when he scored a brilliant goal against Australia and set up the equaliser at Uzbekistan as the UAE Under 23 team qualified for the London Olympics.

The accolades have rolled in again, and more than one observer has suggested he has the quality to play in the world's strongest leagues.

"Omar is a special player and could make the difference in any position he plays," said Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach. "His moves without the ball make his team superior.

"His performance now qualifies him to play outside UAE as a professional player."

Liam Weeks, the head of performance analysis at Al Ain, said: "He has the potential to be the best Emirati player ever. … Omar could be the poster boy of Emirati football for the next 10 years. He has the potential to play in the [English] Premier League."

Josef Hickersberger, the coach of league rivals Al Wahda, summed up his skills: "A very creative player, a very skilful player who can create chances. Good vision, a good passer, very skilful; for me, a very good player."

What leaves his fans petrified is his injury history; he already has had two major surgeries on the same knee.

"He has had two big operations, and if he gets injured again, they might not be able to do anything for him," said Kefah Al Kaabi, a television and radio analyst and former UAE footballer.

"He's very talented, and very wise, but his main problem is that his body is not that strong. His brain is much stronger than his knees.

"Everything possible must be done to understand why he is susceptible to injuries and how they can be prevented."

After playing all but one league match in 2010/11, and making his debut with the senior national team, his knee gave out over the summer.

His absence was felt during the abortive World Cup qualifying campaign, and also on the Olympic team, who won only one of their first four group matches without him. He returned, and the team won twice to secure the country's first Olympic football berth.

"His goal against Australia, nobody can score from that angle," Al Kaabi said. "He was unique."

And three weeks later, at Tashkent, his no-look flick on to Ahmed Khalil set up the crucial second goal in a 3-2 victory.

Omar Abdulrahman Ahmed Alraaki Al Amoody was born in 1991 to Yemeni parents in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. His father was a footballer, and he and his elder brothers displayed an early knack for the game. Al Hilal, the big Saudi club, considered signing him, but Al Ain learned of him and signed him, and two of his brothers, Khalid and Mohammed.

Winfried Schaefer gave him his first-team debut with Al Ain in January of 2009. He was 17, and he scored three league goals before his 18th birthday.

He missed most of the following season while convalescing from his first knee surgery, but he was thrust into the playmaker role in 2010/11 when Al Ain were surprised by the late departure of the Chilean midfielder Jorge Valdivia, who moved to the Brazil club Palmeiras.

Al Ain won their first two games, but a rash of injuries shook the club to their foundation. They lost seven and drew five of their next 12 league matches, and the unthinkable became unavoidable; the most decorated UAE club could be relegated. Up stepped Abdulrahman, the smallest (1.73m, 60kg) player in the side, and the season was saved.

Al Ain did not rush him back, but he made his return on January 21. Said Olaroiu, his coach: "We can't keep him away from football. He so badly wants to be in the field."

Mahdi Ali, the coach of the Olympic team, was tempted to use him in the crucial February 5 match against Iraq at Doha, but kept him out. The UAE won 1-0.

However, he was front and centre against Australia in a critical moment because Amer Abdulrahman, the Baniyas midfielder who is not related to Omar, was out. Omar scored the only goal and played 90 minutes in a match seen by 28,734 spectators at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, and he put in another 90 in the cold of Uzbekistan. Abdulrahman retains a reputation for guarding his privacy; approached for comment after the victory in Tashkent, he smiled and pointed at a teammate coming down the hall. "Ask him," he said.

He is known for wildly colourful baseball caps that barely fit over his enormous mop of curly hair.

He is expected to be a key player at the London Olympics, and his flashes of greatness leave his fans wanting more.

"His thought process is quick, he has quick feet and has all the tricks," Weeks said. "I've likened him to [Diego] Maradona because of his low centre of gravity and the range of passes he can play. He's a big talent."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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