It’s not over yet, UAE are still very much on the Road to Russia. The Whites facing a must-win situation to keep the slim mathematical possibility of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup alive put up an exceptional performance to stun Saudi Arabia 2-1 in the Group B fixture of the World Cup Qualifiers at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium yesterday.
Nawaf Al Abid provided Saudi with an early lead through a penalty before Ali Mabkhout and Ahmad Khalil scored a goal apiece to see UAE notch up a memorable win. The effort was all the more appreciable as the UAE were without ace midfielder Omar Abdul Rahman Amoory.
UAE, placed fourth behind Saudi and Australia with 13 points, will now take on Iraq in their last group away fixture on September 5. The Green Falcons, looking to qualify for the showpiece event for the first time since 2006, will be hosting Japan next in Jeddah.
In a do-or-die match, the absence of star Amoory was a huge blow but UAE banked on their old warhorse Esmail Matar to provide those deft touches upfront. The veteran was very effective despite having waned in agility with time.
Saudi coach Bert Van Marwijk had warned of the UAE being frantic in the early stages of the match but they remained calm and were more purposeful in their approach.
However, Saudi struck against the run of play through a penalty soon after the first quarter. A faintest of touch from behind was enough for Al Abid to go down and the referee pointed it out to the spot.
Al Abid was too good to miss out on that opportunity — a left-footed effort settled into the bottom-right corner. But, even before the Saudi celebrations could end, the UAE struck back.
Thanks to the brilliant touch from the highly reputed striker Ali Mabkhout, who had salvaged a last minute draw against Thailand in the previous fixture. He controlled the cross from Tariq Ahmad with a stunning reverse-flick to leave the Saudi defence rooted before finding the bottom-left corner with a right-footed effort.
After the change of ends, Saudi Arabia almost doubled the lead in the 53rd minute. Osama Hawsawi’s header from the centre of the box from an Al Abid cross following a corner found the framework.
The hosts then weathered a series of raids before Khalil stole the thunder for them with a breathtaking long-range effort to put them in the lead. Thereafter, the UAE held their defences tight and soaked all the pressure to hold on to their lead until the end.