x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE v Uzbekistan: Litmus test for Mahdi Ali without Omar Abdulrahman

Expectations of fans have risen but the UAE talisman is missing for the crucial tie against Uzbekistan

Mahdi Ali has maintained an open-door policy for his UAE side and it remains to be seen who can fill in for the injured Omar Abdulrahman, their mainstay in the recent past. Nikola Milatovic for The National
Mahdi Ali has maintained an open-door policy for his UAE side and it remains to be seen who can fill in for the injured Omar Abdulrahman, their mainstay in the recent past. Nikola Milatovic for The National

"There are no reserves in this squad - everyone is first choice."

The mantra, introduced by the UAE coach Mahdi Ali ahead of the Gulf Cup in Bahrain, has served the country well.

A unified young group won the cup by playing a brand of possession football for which their regional rivals had no answer. When called upon, everyone in the side played their part.

Now, for the first time, the "everyone is first choice" slogan is being seriously tested.

Emirati football fans must have feared the worst when Omar Abdulrahman, the nation's golden boy, limped off in an Asian Champions League match last week. Their fears were not unfounded.

After 81 minutes of Al Ain's 1-0 defeat to Esteghlal of Iran, the midfielder tweaked his already wrapped left knee attempting one of his trademark clipped passes.

He has been ruled out of tomorrow's Group E match between the UAE and Uzbekistan in the race to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup, to be held in Australia.

It might be melodramatic to suggest that Abdulrahman's injury signals the end of the honeymoon period for Mahdi Ali's team.

They have won all their matches this year and top their group, two points ahead of tomorrow's opponents.

But it is also undeniable that Abdulrahman had become the fulcrum of the side, dictating play from the middle of the park in manner unseen from an Emirati player in years.

For a player who missed most of the 2011/12 season through injury, there was always a danger that extra responsibility and rising expectations could lead to burnout or, worse, serious injury.

Without his influence in midfield, tomorrow's match in Abu Dhabi suddenly looks more awkward than it did a few weeks ago.

A victory at Al Jazira's Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium would leave the UAE leading the group by at least two points, four if the match between Vietnam and Hong Kong ends in a draw. The road to Australia would suddenly look far less arduous.

But Uzbekistan will have other ideas. Last year, their senior side played the UAE twice, losing 1-0 in January and drawing 2-2 in October.

Both games, however, were friendlies, played in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively.

Too much can be made of world rankings, but the fact remains that Uzbekistan are currently ranked 59th by Fifa, 39 places higher than the UAE.

More tangible and impressive is their position at the top of Group A, ahead of South Korea and Iran, in the final Asian qualifying stage for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil - a competition unattainable for the UAE since late 2011.

Uzbekistan's concern with maintaining that position could work in the UAE's favour tomorrow. Thanks to the quirk in the international fixture list in Asia, Uzbekistan will play host to Lebanon in a World Cup qualifier only four days after their Abu Dhabi meeting with Mahdi Ali's side.

It is reasonable to assume that Brazil 2014 remains Uzbekistan's primary target.

The visitors should arrive in a confident mood, buoyed by the strong performances of the Uzbek club sides Pakhtakor and Bunyodkor in the Champions League, even as the UAE's four sides in the continental club competition have only one victory from eight matches.

This could be the most difficult assignment for the UAE since Mahdi Ali took over the side in September.

The Gulf Cup triumph in January proved that the UAE are more than a match for their GCC rivals. But qualifying for the Asian Cup in Australia was, and remains, the coach's priority.

Failure to do so would leave the distant 2018 World Cup in Russia as the next major target, and would no doubt slow the momentum that the national team have built over the past year.

Also, the players tomorrow will experience a whole new kind of pressure: for the first time in years, Emirati fans now expect their team to win.

The squad have met those expectations so far this year. But this time they will play an important match without Abdulrahman for the first time in more than 12 months. The man drafted to fill his place in the squad is Sultan Bargash of Al Jazira, who, coincidently, scored the UAE's winning goal the last time they faced Uzbekistan in a competitive match, an Asian Cup qualifier in 2010.

Abdulrahman may not get any action tomorrow, but whoever makes it on to the field, Emirati fans will be hoping that Mahdi Ali's mantra trumps the absence of their increasingly indispensable playmaker.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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