UAE stay in the hunt as Saudi Arabia stunned

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

United Arab Emirates kept their slim hopes of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup alive on Tuesday after claiming a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.

The Saudis initially took the lead in the 20th minute when Nawaf Al-Abed converted from the penalty spot after he was brought down inside the box.

However, almost immediately after, Ali Mabkhout pulled the hosts level with a brilliant individual effort, before Ahmed Khalil won it for them on the hour mark with an equally stunning strike.

Although they remain fourth in Group B of the Asian World Cup qualifying, UAE are now just three points outside the top two, who automatically qualify for Russia 2018.

Meanwhile, second-place Saudi Arabia are only ahead of Australia on goals scored but have played a game more and they run a real risk of finishing third, which would require them to go through the playoffs.

It could have been a far different story had the visitors been able to make the most of their strong start, especially coming up against an opposition outfit who were winless in their last three qualifiers.

It took both sides awhile to get going as they sought to get a feel for one another, but the Saudis were presented with the perfect opportunity to take the lead in the 18th minute.

Having received a layoff from Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, Al-Abed attempted to turn Mohamed Fawzi but then went down under the defender’s challenge, convincing referee Kim Jong-hyeok to award a penalty.

Al-Abed brushed himself off and stepped up to the spot, making no mistake in sending Khalid Eisa the wrong way to break the deadlock.

Having fallen behind, the home fans could have been forgiven for wondering how they were going to get back into the contest, especially without injured playmaker Omar Abdulrahman.

Up stepped Mabkhout with a moment of pure inspiration to level the scores.

With his back to goal, the 26-year-old produced a sublime touch to bring Tareq Ahmed’s cross with the outside of his boot and turn towards goal, before rifling a shot into the bottom corner.

As expected, Saudi Arabia turned the intensity up a notch in a bid to reclaim the lead although they lacked a cutting edge in the final third, with Al-Sahlawi – in particular – struggling to make any sort of impact.

Instead, it was captain Osama Hawsawi who was unlucky to see his powerful header come back off the bar eight minutes after the restart, before Yahya Al-Shehri failed to hit the target in the 59th minute from a decent opening.

A minute after Al-Shehri’s miss, UAE found themselves in front.

Mabkhout’s first-half strike was never going to be bettered but Khalil came close to doing just that.

After a 50-50 challenge with Salman Al-Faraj, the ball broke kindly into his path but he still deserves plenty of credit for proceeding to unleash a rocket of a shot past Abdullah Al-Mayouf’s despairing dive.

Things certainly were not going to plan for Saudi Arabia and, with their final Group B tie being against leaders Japan, it was imperative that they salvaged something from this game.

Bert van Marwijk certainly did what he could to galvanise the Green Falcons, throwing on Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Naseer Al-Shamrani but to no avail.

The Emiratis did finish the game with ten men when Mahmoud Khamees was sent off in injury-time for a second bookable offence.

Nonetheless, they were able to play out the remainder of the contest to claim their first win over Saudi Arabia in over a decade, with their last triumph coming back in January 2007.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Khalid Eisa, Mohamed Fawzi, Mohamed Ahmad, Mohanad Salem, Mahmoud Khamees, Khamis Esmaeel, Tareq Ahmed, Ahmed Barman (Mohamed Abdulrahman 71’), Ismail Matar (Habib Fardan 77’), Ali Mabkhout (Salem Saleh 63’), Ahmed Khalil.

SAUDI ARABIA: Abdullah Al-Mayouf, Yaseer Al-Shahrani, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Mansoor Al-Harbi, Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Naseer Al-Shamrani 81’), Salman Al-Faraj, Yahya Al-Shehri (Salem Al-Dawsari 71’), Taiseer Al-Jassam, Nawaf Al-Abed (Fahad Al-Muwallad 67’), Mohammed Al-Sahlawi.