The UAE face an uphill task to top their Fifa World Cup 2018 qualifying group after a late defeat in Jeddah saw Saudi Arabia extend their lead to five points.
UAE suffer late and costly defeat to Saudi Arabia in Fifa World Cup qualifier
Saudi Arabia 2
Al Sahlawi 45, 89
MoM: Mohammed Al Sahlawi
Omar Abdulrahman, from hero to hopeless in a flash.
The UAE’s golden boy, the standout star in its so-called golden generation, lost a little sheen last night in Jeddah, when he gave away a late penalty that granted Saudi Arabia a vital victory in a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier.
Three points gained, the Saudis’ lead over second-placed UAE is stretched to five with four Group A fixtures remaining. Mahdi Ali’s men require a substantial shift to turn this around, to somehow usurp Saudi Arabia and ensure automatic progression to the next stage.
An already chequered history against the Saudis swelled further at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, the 2-1 win making it eight matches against their old foes since the UAE last avoided defeat.
Seven successive losses, dating back seven years. This one will sting just as much as any that have gone before.
It was secured in the 89th minute, when Abdulrahman’s ill-advised lunge caused Nawaf Al Abed to hit the floor in the UAE penalty area.
Mohammed Al Sahlawi, who had earlier drawn Saudi Arabia level, made no mistake from the spot.
In clinching it for the collective, he took his individual tally to eight goals in four qualifiers. Looking on, Abdulrahman could only lift his jersey over his face.
In truth, the UAE were nowhere near their best, sloppy in possession and sluggish in closing down opponents. But they seemed set to escape with a draw, a precious point to keep control of their destiny on the road to Russia 2018.
Ahmed Khalil had thundered them into the lead, when on 18 minutes he curled an unstoppable, arching free kick high into the Saudi Arabia net. He was around 30 yards out. It was a superstar strike, a captain’s contribution.
Yet the UAE could not see out the first half. Given the timing, it was particularly painful.
Moments before the break, Ismail Al Hammadi hesitated in making a challenge just outside his penalty area, and within a few passes the hosts were level.
Al Sahlawi slid in to supply the final touch, lifting the ball into the UAE goal from close range.
To be fair, the hosts should have gone into the break with an advantage, since Yasser Al Shahrani had earlier wasted two golden opportunities.
Both times, though, he failed to even hit the target.
The same pattern unfolded in the second half, with Saudi Arabia exerting sustained pressure on the UAE, pinning the visitors back and pressing for a winner.
The UAE had chances to strike on the counter-attack, but Abdulrahman’s radar was uncharacteristically off, while Ali Mabkhout looked a shadow of the striker who top scored at this year’s Asian Cup.
Then, the UAE finished as the continent’s third best side; now they appear poised to be second best in their pool.
Their World Cup dream is still on, although it will take a mighty effort from all those concerned.
First, they need to glean 12 points from a possible 12, and hope the Saudis slip up against Palestine, East Timor or Malaysia. The UAE host Saudi Arabia in the final matchday next March; they will hope by then there remains something to play for.
Given everything Abdulrahman has given the national team, it is difficult to lament his latest contribution too long. But a rush of blood has left the UAE in a tricky spot, indeed.
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