The Whites stayed on course to reach their second World Cup after their Italia 1990 debut after drawing 1-1 with their Arab rivals at the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday evening in their final Asian zone Group A game.
Before the final second-round qualifiers, the UAE had to win to categorically ensure their qualification for the third round, but Tuesday’s draw courtesy of Omar Abdul Rahman’s 52nd minute equaliser to Taisser Al Jassam’s first-half opener was rendered redundant by results elsewhere.
A 5-1 thumping for Jordan in Australia and North Korea’s shock 3-2 defeat away to the Philippines meant only an unlikely Oman win in Iran and a heavy defeat for the UAE could deny the Whites’ progression.
But the Omanis lost 2-0 in Iran before the UAE’s game ended, allowing Iraq to join the Mahdi Ali’s men in the next round along with Syria and China as the four best runners-up in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers.
Saudi Arabia, who topped Group A on 20 points, three ahead of the UAE, progress as one of eight pool winners.
Suspension had denuded the UAE of the midfield trio of Esmail Al Hammadi, Majid Hassan and Habib Fardan, with Khamis Esmail, Mohammad Abdul Rahman and Amer Abdul Rahman replacing them in the Whites’ engine room.
These notable absences were offset by the fact that the 33-goal striker Ali Mabkhout was passed fit after recovering from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss last Thursday’s 2-0 home win over Palestine.
The magnitude of the occasion was exemplified by the fact that the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium stands, so often pockmarked by empty seats for Al Jazira home games, were a seething mass of white in a crowd of 32,325.
Huge national flags of both countries were unfurled in the Etihad Rail Stand shortly before kick-off, embellishing the pulsating atmosphere, while the Argentinian great Diego Maradona looked on from a VIP box.
Given that the competitive edge had been taken off the game given fortuitous events elsewhere for the UAE, this was a chance for two Arab nations to celebrate unreservedly a festival of football.
Roared on by an exuberant home support, the UAE made the livelier start, Mohammad Abdul Rahman firing over the bar from his brother Omar’s assist before dragging an angled shot narrowly wide.
But it was the visitors who took the lead in the 24th minute through Al Jassam’s spectacular, angled volley after Mohammad Al Sahlawi beat Esmail Ahmad to nod down Salman Muwashar’s left-wing cross.
Saudi Arabia’s fluid, 4-3-3 formation was causing considerable panic in the hosts’ ranks – the goal was a product of multiple passes – although the Whites were a significant threat themselves.
The irrepressible Mabkhout, showing no signs of rust from his lay-off, went close with two efforts as half-time loomed.
An even greater chance was spurned by Mohammad Abdul Rahman shortly after the restart when the Al Ain midfielder scuffed his shot in the box after racing clear of the Saudi defence.
But the equaliser the Whites’ pressure merited arrived shortly afterwards in the 52nd minute and it was another beauty.
Omar Abdul Rahman released Mabkhout into the box with a pinpoint through ball and then lashed the Al Jazira forward’s lay-off high into the net from the penalty spot with his left foot.
The resultant roars from the delirious, flag-waving crowd were equally as thunderous Abdul Rahman’s sublime effort, but the Green Falcons responded instantly after Majid Hassan palmed away Yahia Al Shehri’s vicious strike.
Hassan then made an even more acrobatic save 10 minutes before the end when he tipped over Al Jassam’s long-distance strike arrowing towards the top corner.
A breathless game petered out and the UAE could savour the closing minutes knowing nothing could spoil their exhilarating evening.
The UAE and 11 other countries will on April 12 be drawn into two groups of six, with the top two in each progressing to the World Cup.
They also ensured their place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, which they will host.
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