x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The UAE return to competitive action on Tuesday knowing that a win against Hong Kong would leave them on the brink of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

UAE train ahead of their Asian Cup qualification match against Hong Kong. UAEFA
UAE train ahead of their Asian Cup qualification match against Hong Kong. UAEFA

Unbeaten over 13 months. Two tournament victories.

Two years ago this week, it would have been hard to associate a struggling UAE national team with such impressive numbers. A fourth consecutive loss in a 2014 World Cup qualifier against South Korea ended their hopes of advancing to the final round of Asia competition for Brazil berths.

When the national side sagged to a record low No 138 in Fifa’s world rankings, in January 2012, Emirati football arguably was at its lowest ebb for two decades.

The transformation since Mahdi Ali took over, after the London Olympics, has been remarkable.

The Gulf Cup triumph in Bahrain in January was followed by success at the OSN Cup, a four-team competition that also included Saudi Arabia, Trinidad & Tobago and New Zealand. It was a far less meaningful tournament, but still, it is never a bad idea to get into the habit of winning.

Today, the UAE take on Hong Kong in their latest 2015 Asian Cup qualifier, having resumed their preparations over the past week with friendly wins over Laos (2-0) and Malaysia (3-1), both matches taking place during a training camp in China.

Mahdi Ali’s side sit on top of Group E with a maximum of six points after 2-1 away win in Vietnam, and a home defeat of Uzbekistan by the same score. Hong Kong lie second with four points.

With the Arabian Gulf League not kicking off until September 14, the Emirati players have had only a few matches before this international break.

Fitness does not seem to be an issue, and Mahdi Ali’s team are now in position to increase the lead at the top of their group.

The recent wins were the latest in string of excellent performances since the team reconvened, after a six-month break from March to September.

With no competitive matches during that period, Mahdi Ali and the Football Association chose to forgo friendlies in June and during the first international week of the season, in August.

Aside from fitness doubts, there were concerns among pundits that this self-imposed period of inaction would halt the momentum the team had built in the early months of the year.

The fears have proved unfounded.

Not that Mahdi Ali will be getting carried away with a few friendly wins. The long-term goals remain unchanged – reaching the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia; a top-four finish there; and beyond that, qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

However, the coach, 48, is known for his meticulous, almost obsessive, approach to every match and will not admit to be looking beyond today’s match. Despite the consistent performances, he has suggested that there is still room for improvement.

“I am pleased with the way we are playing, but it will be a big test when we travel to Hong Kong,” he said after the win over Malaysia. “We still have some work ahead of us and hopefully have it sorted out in the next few days in our camp.”

Still, he could be forgiven if, for once, he had an eye on next month’s return match in Abu Dhabi. Two wins would leave the UAE on 12 points and almost guaranteed a spot in Australia.

It is the form of his forwards that will give him hope that this target is achievable.

Ahmed Khalil of Al Ahli scored twice against Malaysia, with fellow Gulf Cup hero Ali Mabkhout of Al Jazira getting the other. The two had also shared the goals in the previous match against Laos, and had scored five goals in the two matches in Riyadh.

Khalil, in particular, is starting to consistently show the form that singled him out as a star of the future as a member of the team that won the 2008 Asian Under 19 Championship in Saudi Arabia.

Behind them, Omar Abdulrahman has carried on his excellent form from last season into the OSN Cup and the two recent friendlies.

Mahdi Ali will also be hoping for no lapses in concentration among his back line. At the OSN Cup, a comfortable 3-1 lead over Trinidad & Tobago turned into a 3-3 draw in the last five minutes of normal time, before a penalty shoot-out win saved the blushes of the UAE defence.

A 15th consecutive win (counting that shoot-out triumph) would leave the UAE on the brink of qualification to the Asian Cup. A 16th next month would ensure a giant leap towards the dream of turning his talented side into one of the continent’s best.