Victory shows UAE coach Mahdi Ali as good as his word
Perhaps we should listen more closely to what Mahdi Ali says.
Before and after the match against Iran, there was no hiding his irritation to the questions about facing Japan in the Asian Cup quarter-finals.
After the last-gasp defeat in that Group C match, he predictably attempted to play down the significance of the route to the final. After all, the old managerial mantra demands that all teams be taken seriously.
“Even if we had won this, we could have lost the next match and it’ll be the same thing,” he said.
That was the fate that befell the UAE’s conquerors, Iran. The Emiratis, meanwhile, chose an arduous route to the semi-final by beating Japan on penalties on Friday.
Perhaps we all owe him an apology. Deep down, who really believed that the UAE could overcome the Asian champions?
But overcome they did. It was not pretty and, at times, it was unbearably tense. A performance full of “sacrifice”, the coach called it.
Sacrificing the attacking style to which we have become accustomed, the virtuoso performances of Omar Abdulrahman and the presence of Amer Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, two integral members of the team, for the sake of bolstering the defence.
It worked. Whatever the gripes about “parking the bus”, this match was a tactical masterclass from Mahdi Ali on how to get through 120 minutes against the continent’s best team.
Even taking into account the defeat against Iran, the UAE coach has outwitted every manager he has come up against in this competition.
The players, as man-of-the-match Mohaned Salem said, followed his instructions to the letter.
If any doubts remained over the mental strength of Mahdi Ali’s group, they were banished yesterday. A core group of players who have been overseen by this coach at various age-group stages, last night came of age in the biggest test they have faced.
There was the leadership from the back of captain and goalkeeper Majed Naser, a player reborn. The heroic defending of Salem and Ali Mabkhout’s sensational volley for the UAE goal, the first Japan had conceded in the competition.
Then two pieces of Omar Abdulrahman magic – an impudent chipped pass that Mabkhout failed to convert and the astonishing “Panenka” penalty during the shootout – and Ismail Ahmed’s winning spot kick.
As the players and squad sang the national anthem to a small but boisterous group of UAE fans as midnight approached in Sydney, there was a sense that something special had just taken place. This was a breakthrough for the UAE national team.
Singapore 1989, Abu Dhabi 2007 and Manama 2013. Now Sydney 2015 – the best of the bunch.
Qualification to the 1990 World Cup was achieved against the odds and those two Gulf Cup of Nations triumphs brought regional bragging rights. But this is on a larger scale, extending from one end of Asia to the other.
Mahdi Ali no doubt will try to play down the victory, saying that they have won nothing yet. It is unlikely to work any more, both in Australia and at home.
His ascension through the ranks confirms he is a result-driven man, one who has consistently spoken of his dreams, his targets.
Winning the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations was the short-term one, while reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia always has been the long-term one.
Last night in Sydney, he realised the medium-term one; to reach the last four (the “golden square”, in his own words) of the Asian Cup.
If the Emirati fans had not caught the fever before, they should have now. During the past two weeks, the global media who have gathered in Australia have also fallen for this team, and, in particular, for Omar Abdulrahman.
Having played and outlasted two of the favourites, the UAE face overcoming hosts Australia in front of a packed Newcastle Stadium on Tuesday.
Mahdi Ali has already said it will be an “enjoyable experience”, one to be cherished.
It is hard to doubt him.
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