The UAE may not have matched the pre-match passion and vigour of their coach, Mahdi Ali, but kept their 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying dream alive thanks to a 2-0 home win over Palestine in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
Esmail Al Hammadi (32) and Ahmad Khalil’s (60) exquisite goals illuminated a wretched game at the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium, but the UAE are poised to join Asian zone Group A leaders Saudi Arabia in the final qualifying round.
The eight Asian Football Confederation (AFC) group winners will progress automatically to this, while the UAE’s victory ensures they are currently among four best runners-up, along with Jordan, North Korea and Syria, who would also advance.
The UAE will entertain Saudi Arabia – who took on Malaysia at home later on Thursday – in their final group game on Tuesday.
But they will have to produce a far better display against Bert van Marwijk’s men than they did against a plucky but limited Palestine if they are to stay on course to reach their second World Cup after their Italia 1990 debut.
Ali had on Wednesday implored the UAE to “play their hearts out”, but his stirring words were not heeded by his lacklustre and listless side.
As Ali had predicted in his pre-match press conference, the Whites were without the Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout, who injured his hamstring last week.
Bani Yas’ Ahmad Ali replaced Mabkhout up front alongside the 2015 AFC Asian player of the year Ahmad Khalil, but the UAE badly missed their 33-goal talisman
They were wasteful in possession and struggled for fluency against opponents who are ranked 117 in the Fifa world rankings, 53 places below them.
The noise and vibrancy of a boisterous home and away support at the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium – Palestine were roared on by several hundred travelling fans in a crowd of 15,822 – were in stark contrast to the somniferous fare on the pitch.
A wretched game was brought to life with a moment of magic just past the half-hour, however, when Al Hammadi rifled in a close-range volley after a delightful interchange with Khalil.
But rather than capitalise on this, the UAE allowed Palestine to dominate the rest of the half, although the visitors failed to trouble Majid Nasser in the home goal.
The momentum remained with Abdel Nasser Barakat’s men after the break, Jonathan Zorrilla skewing an effort wide from the edge of the box after 51 minutes.
The UAE responded through the ubiquitous Khalil, who scuffed Walid Abbas’s fine, left-wing cross over the bar and then dinked in an audacious Panenka penalty after Abdallah Jaber was deemed to have handled Mohammad Fawzi's cross to make it 2-0 to the hosts.
Palestine’s misery was compounded when Mohammad Darwish was shown a second yellow card for scything down Mohammad Abdul Rahman, while furious appeals for a penalty of their own for a perceived handball went in vain.
The visitors, though, ended the game more impressively, provoking shrieks of delight from their away fans.
In the end, though, it was the massed home ranks who were celebrating.
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