x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE comeback kings qualify for the Olympics

Mahdi Ali's side fight back from two goals down to win 3-2 in Uzbekistan and qualify for London 2012.

Mahdi Ali is hoisted overhead by the Olympic team.
Mahdi Ali is hoisted overhead by the Olympic team.

TASHKENT // Hello, London! Get ready to welcome the UAE football team for the Summer Olympics.

Ahmed Khalil scored two astonishing goals and Haboush Saleh grabbed the late winner as the UAE mounted a pulsating comeback from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 versus Uzbekistan, and win Asia's Group B advance to London 2012.

It will be the UAE's first participation in the Olympic football tournament, and ranks as the biggest achievement by Emirati footballers since they reached the 1990 World Cup.

Fozil Musaev's headed goal in the 46th minute gave the Uzbeks a 2-0 lead, and their fervid supporters in the packed out JAR Stadium had to be looking forward to the Summer Games.

But then came that man Khalil. The Al Ahli striker halved the deficit with a laser-guided free kick into the side netting from 20 yards.

The knot of Emirati supporters had hardly finished celebrating that 50th-minute goal when Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman collaborated for the equaliser in the 54th. It was Abdulrahman who flicked on a cross from the left, knowing that Khalil was behind him, and the forward's first touch, from 20 yards, beat the goalkeeper to his left.

And it was so quiet in JAR Stadium, you could almost hear a nation's hopes hit the ground.

The first half was not as frenetic. Uzbekistan took the lead in the 33rd minute after an inelegant sequence that pulled apart the UAE defence. A shot by the big striker Ivan Nagaev was deflected, and the ball fell about 20 yards to his left, at the feet of Oleg Zejeev, who was unmarked.

With Khalid Essa, the UAE goalkeeper, off his line, Zejeev recognised his opportunity and took a step or two before letting fly a shot. It was not struck well, but Essa could not reach it, and neither could the centre-back Mohammaed Ahmed, who nearly caught up to it at the goal line.

The goal seemed not quite fair, given the UAE's dominance of the ball and technical superiority. Abdulrahman and Khalil had been the best players on the pitch till that point, but the slippery turf, which tended to come up in long, ragged strips because of rain the previous night, seemed to keep the UAE from getting a good look at the goal.

By half time, the identity of the other two second-place teams had been established: Oman out of Group A and Syria from Group C.

Those two will meet in Hanoi on March 25 in the first match of the three-team Asia play-off for fourth place. Uzebekistan, the runners-up from Group B will get into action on March 27, and play again on March 29.

The leaders in the table from the round-robin tournament go on to an April match in Coventry, England, with Senegal, the No 4 team out of Africa, and the winner of that one-off also qualifies for London 2012.

The men's Olympic football tournament begins on July 27, two days ahead of Opening Ceremonies. The UAE will be one of only 16 teams playing in it.