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This Is What World Cup Qualifying Disaster Feels Like

March 28th, 2017 · No Comments · Russia 2018, soccer, UAE, World Cup

As fans of the U.S. national team, we have skewed perceptions of what qualifies as hard times.

As a fan of the UAE national team, I can vouch for that.

For the Americans, World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, two of the top sides in the western hemisphere, ranks as a panic moment.

That is what comes of playing in every World Cup since 1990, which included some U.S. strolls to a finals berth. (See: 2006 and 2014)

For the UAE, which has not played in a World Cup since 1990, it was always going to be difficult emerging from an Asian qualifying tournament featuring five opponents demonstrably stronger than the Emirati side.

And now, predictable yet crushing losses to World Cup regulars Japan and Australia have left the UAE’s best team in a generation close to elimination from contention and led to the coach resigning after today’s 2-0 loss to Oz in Sydney.

And now the UAE needs a something like miracle to qualify … or the country is looking at a decade (or three) back out in the wilderness of second-tier Asian football.

If two competitive matches over five days were not challenge enough, the Japan and Australia games presented particular difficulties to the Emiratis.

The UAE has only 1 million citizens. The talent pool is shallow. Very shallow. Usually, each age cohort does not produce 11 players who can survive at the international level. This group of guys had 11 … but not many more than that, and if two or three of the 15, 16 significant players were hobbled, the UAE is in deep trouble.

Two players are indispensable to the UAE side: Midfielder Omar Abdulrahman and striker Ahmed Khalil. The former is the 2016 Asian player of the year; the latter was the 2015 POY.

Omar gets most of the attention for his intimate relationship with a soccer ball and ability to make the killer pass.

But that killer pass often went to Ahmed Khalil, who led all scorers halfway through the third round of the AFC competition with 15 goals.

Khalil suffered a calf injury this month, and he was held out of the 2-0 loss to Japan in Al Ain last week. The UAE has one other competent forward, Ali Mabkhout, but games like these demonstrate he is the sidekick to the far more athletic Khalil.

Khalil attempted to play in Sydney today, but he was clearly not all the way back. He was slow to the ball in the first half, and never looked like he would score … and in the second half a pronounced limp led to him being subbed out. In essence, the UAE played with 10 men for more than 50 minutes.

The UAE’s next-best forward is Ismail Matar, a hero in the early years of the century who is 33 and carries a bit of a paunch these days. He started against Japan, and he came on late today, and he just wasn’t sharp.

The UAE has had some success against Japan, probably Asia’s top team, winning 2-1 in Saitama last year and winning a shootout in an Asian Cup quarterfinal win in 2015.

Khalil scored both goals in that 2-1 game, and without him the UAE just did not have enough skill and stamina to handle the Japanese. In retrospect, that home game was where coach Mahdi Ali was hoping to get at least a point … and it didn’t happen.

Australia is just a bad matchup for the Emiratis. The Aussies are big and strong and tough (think “England without the finesse”) and the Emiratis are small and technical. (They also have conditioning issues; they seemed to fade in the final 20 minutes, which is not unusual.)

The Aussies committed 26 (of the game’s 42) fouls, with at least half-a-dozen of them aimed at Omar Abdulrahman. It was cynical but exactly how a team like Oz should play a team like the UAE.

It was a chippy match, played on Oz’s terms, and they won 2-0 on a pair of headers from corners. (They had 13 corners.)

The UAE gave up an early goal, again, but had some chances over the next hour but lacked the clutch finisher, with Khalil limping, then benched.

Their situation now is dire. They probably should not even think about finishing first or second in Group B and winning an automatic berth to Russia 2018, but they still have a chance to finish third and enter the “international playoff” against Concacaf’s fourth-place finisher.

Nine points from three matches are still out there. Away to Thailand, home against Saudi, away to Iraq (in Tehran). If the Emiratis sweep those three, that gives them 18 points and it is hard to believe the three sides ahead of them now (Saudi and Japan on 16 points, Oz on 13) would all have more.

Also, the three sides ahead of the UAE each must play the other two. They are going to be dropping points. If one side in particular struggles (say, Oz), the UAE could slip into third with a strong finish.

It isn’t quite over. The next coach, perhaps someone currently coaching in the national league (Cosmin Olaroiu, perhaps?), can stress that ahead of the two June matches. A win at Thailand, a victory at home against Saudi …

But it was always going to be tough. I spent some time with Mahdi Ali, back when he got the U23s to the 2012 Olympics, and he knew the odds were long. Japan (five WC appearances) and Australia (three appearances) and Saudi (three) … those are sides who expect to make the World Cup and have the players to make it happen.

Mahdi Ali had this unusually strong group of players, but he needed a few more to have emerged in the past 2-3 years, and they did not.

Anyway, four points to make up in three matches … that’s trouble, and UAE soccer fans have seen their golden generation break down. They now need to pull an inside straight to reach the World Cup. We Yanks don’t really know about that.


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