Could five fabulous years in charge of the UAE national football team be coming to a bitter end for embattled coach Mahdi Ali?
That question must surely be crossing the minds of the UAE Football Association mandarins, as Ali faces the prospect of impending 2018 World Cup qualification oblivion.
The Whites edged ever closer to this after producing one of their worst performances of Ali’s glorious reign — which has encompassed 2013 Gulf Cup success and a third-place finish at the 2015 Asian Cup — when they were deservedly beaten 2-0 by Japan in Al Ain on Thursday evening.
The defeat left the home side fourth in Group B, four points behind Saudi Arabia, who lead the pool, and Japan, who occupy the second automatic qualifying spot.
Each of the sides have four matches left as they attempt to seal a place in Russia next year, with the UAE aiming to reach the World Cup for only the second time.
The Whites now face the daunting task of a do-or-die trip to the reigning Asian champions, Australia, next Tuesday — with a third-place play-off spot their own realistic aim.
Ali insisted after Thursday’s dismal loss at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium that he was fully focused on the clash with the Socceroos and would not resign.
But he conceded that a decision over his future could be taken out of his hands.
“It is not the time to tackle that issue here,” Ali said. “In five days’ time, we have another game and it is the decision of the association to take, not me.
“I am a professional coach, so I am not thinking about [resigning]. We have another game coming. We lost only three points here. We have not lost our chances to qualify.
“There are still 12 points to play for. I think we have to win the rest of the games, and we have to work hard to achieve our goals.”
What was glaringly obvious against Japan, though, was the poverty of resources available to Ali.
He was missing several men, most notably star striker Ahmad Khalil after the Al Ahli man failed a late fitness test on a calf injury, and was thus forced to field the veteran Esmail Mattar.
Consequently, the UAE looked impotent in attack and also porous in defence; both Japan’s goals, via Yuya Kubo and Yasuyuki Konno, could have been avoided with better marking.
A far cry, then, from last September when Ali’s men shocked the Samurai Blue 2-1 in their own backyard in the Group B opener.
“The match was difficult for us,” Ali continued. “We controlled the first half for much of the time, and created chances, but we did not score.
“In the second half, the same. Japan made use of two attacks and scored two goals. The match was hard, and despite the situations we faced, I’d like to congratulate my players for their efforts. Now we are looking forward.”
While Ali strived to disguise his desolation, Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic could not conceal his delight.
“That was an important victory, but the result in the next game is going to be even more important,” the Bosnian said, after receiving a round of applause from the Japanese journalists present.
“This victory against the Emirates will not count for anything if we lose against Thailand. I have told this to the players. We will need to work very hard, and make sure we don’t do any stupid things in the next games.”
GROUP B STANDINGS
Pos. P W D L GD Pts
1 Saudi Arabia 6 4 1 1 7 13
2 Japan 6 4 1 1 5 13
3 Australia 6 2 4 0 3 10
4 UAE 6 3 0 3 -1 9
5 Iraq 6 1 1 4 -2 4
6 Thailand 6 0 1 5 -12 1
1 Iran 6 4 2 0 5 0 14
2 South Korea 6 3 1 2 8 7 10
3 Uzbekistan 6 3 0 3 5 4 9
4 Syria 6 2 2 2 2 2 8
5 China 6 1 2 3 3 6 5
6 Qatar 6 1 1 4 3 7 4
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