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My Other Other Favorite Team Shocks Saudi

August 29th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, London 2012, Russia 2018, soccer, UAE, World Cup

The United Arab Emirates national team came up big. On the same day I said the Emiratis would lose 3-0. And maybe worse.

Needing a victory over Saudi Arabia to keep alive its ultra-slim chances of qualifying for the Russia 2018 World Cup, the UAE got goals from two of the greatest forwards the country has produced and defeated the Saudis 2-1.

Bravo! And apologies for my lack of faith.

The UAE has, historically, cowered when the Saudis were on the other side of the pitch. According to my former colleague, John McAuley, the UAE had not defeated the Saudis in soccer since 2007. And lost a lot, including 3-0 earlier in this qualifying round and 2-1 away in the previous round.

But in this one they rose up, despite not having AFC player of the year Omar Abdulrahman, overcame an early penalty and got world-class goals (no, really; go see them) from Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil to win a game with multiple ramifications in Asian Football Confederation qualifying.

First, about that “other, other” thing.

I am first and foremost a fan of the U.S. national team.

Then, my other favorite team is Arsenal. Maybe a bad choice, but I made it in 2009.

And then my other other favorite team is the UAE national side.

I covered those guys a lot, earlier this decade, and I saw their Olympic team qualify for London 2012, and saw them tie Senegal have Great Britain at 1-1 in the 60th minute and lose to Uruguay 2-1. A fine showing by a team that ranks about 60th in the world during its good times.

The UAE has been to the World Cup only once, in 1990, which pretty much nobody in the youth-oriented UAE can remember, and this team was thought — including by me — to have a better chance of getting back to the World Cup than at any time since 1990.

But … because they could not defeat Saudi (in the UAE) in March of 2016, settling for a 1-1 draw, they finished second in the group, which landed them in the same Group B for the third round that includes Japan and Australia, World Cup regulars, and the Saudis, who did four consecutive World Cups from 1994 through 2006.

The Emiratis won at Japan to start this round, but then lost to Saudi away, to Australia home and away and Japan at home, and entering the game tonight in the interior city of Al Ain they were on 10 points, six behind Saudi and Australia and seven behind Japan, with two to play.

Top two in the group go directly to Russia. Third place plays home and away with the third-place team from Group A (probably Uzbekistan) and the winner of that gets the No. 4 team from Concacaf (probably Panama or Honduras) in the final berth into Russia 2018. A hard way in, but worth fighting for.

Truth be told, the fact that it was Saudi probably was enough for the Emiratis at Al Ain tonight.

Saudi could have gone near to clinching an automatic berth by winning. They would have gone to 19 points with a home game versus Japan left.

Now? They wait till Thursday to see what happens when Oz plays in Japan. The Saudis probably would prefer to see Australia win so that they (the Saudis) can control their own destiny at home versus Japan, next week.

But if they are as nervous about that match as they were in this one …

The UAE needs Oz to lose twice (unlikely, when they end at home versus Thailand) or Saudi to lose once, while winning a road game versus Iraq to have a shot at finishing third. They also need to gain eight points in goal-differential to catch Saudi or Oz, as it now stands.

Unlikely, and a couple of the UAE players said so, before the match, and that may have left them feeling no pressure in the match with Saudi. Most of the crowd of 10,221 seemed to be Saudis, who flew in to see their team get this close to Russia.

Sorry about that.

But if they could expect to get a penalty (Saudi has gotten four of them in nine matches in this round), and they did, they could not expect Mabkhout and Khalil to score those highlight-reel goals.

Mabkhout’s was astonishing, as he controlled a long cross from Tariq Ahmed by turning, nearly catching the eye-high ball on his right foot, dropping it as his feet, where he promptly knocked it into the goal.

Go back and look at it again, at the one-minute mark. Astonishing. Who even thinks of deadening a ball that way … and then has the presence of mind to bang it inside the far post — with his second touch?

Khalil’s goal was straight-forward, but it was a rocket from 35 yards or thereabouts that sailed into the upper-left corner of the goal. Feel free to look at that one again, too. (He scored one rather like it in the epic, 3-2 Olympic-qualifier victory in Uzbekistan in 2012.)



Three final thoughts:

–Oh, must the Emiratis rue, now, that 1-1 draw at Thailand in the previous qualifier. Had they won that one, they would be on 16 points, with Saudi and Oz and have a much, much better chance of qualifying.

–The crushing draw with the Thais came at a time when Ahmed Khalil was carrying an injury, and he was next to useless. He is the co-leader for goals scored (16) in this AFC qualifying cycle and he has a history of scoring very important goals for the national team. Tonight, he looked healthy, and he scored.

–UAE players and fans will always have August 29, 2017. They took on Saudi, were hit with a soft penalty and fought back to win with two epic goals.




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