Why the Socceroos don't need to fear 'Arabian Messi' Abdulrahman

In Asia, and especially in the United Arab Emirates, there is no bigger star than Omar Abdulrahman - the man dubbed the 'Arabian Messi'.

Omar Abdulrahman

UAE's Omar Abdulrahman Source: Getty Images

The reigning AFC Player of the Year has been the poster boy of the UAE's ascent in recent years, with his wizardry winning him an army of fans across the continent, and indeed the world.

But while his reputation as a showman lives on, his reputation as a big game player is, unfortunately, taking a battering.

When the pressure is at its most intense, when he needs to stand up and deliver, he’s often nowhere to be found.

It was the case in last year’s AFC Champions League final which his club Al Ain lost to Korean side Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. He played like a player burdened by the pressure of expectation. You could see it written all over his face.

And, perhaps encouragingly for the Socceroos, it was the case again last week in the UAE’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Japan, played in what is his backyard – Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

It was the perfect stage for Abdulrahman to deliver and enhance his reputation; to show he really is Asia’s best player, to take the game by the scruff of the neck and haul UAE over the line and get the much-needed three points.

Instead UAE lost 2-0 with little more than a whimper, and the playmaker was again a peripheral figure in the game, hugely overshadowed by Japan's Shinji Kagawa.

Heading into Tuesday's match against the Socceroos a lot of the pressure will fall on the shoulders of UAE talisman Abdulrahman.

The afro-haired 25-year-old is the barometer for this Emirati side and if the UAE is to have any chance of defeating Australia he needs to lift his game, as they can’t win if he’s not pulling the strings.

But it's not just Abdulrahman feeling the heat.

The entire UAE side from Abdulrahman to striker Ali Mabkhout, and especially coach Mahdi Ali are all under pressure.

The UAE currently sit four points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan and face a tough task against an equally desperate Australia in Sydney on Tuesday.

Anything but a win would all but end the UAE's hopes of qualifying for just their second ever FIFA World Cup.

That Mahdi Ali is still in charge is a surprise to some. Speculation swirled that he would be shown the door after their qualifier against Iraq in November.

But the red baseball cap-wearing tactician will surely know he is skating on thin ice after their insipid display against Japan last week.

A loss to Australia will likely end his long tenure in charge of this talented generation, who he has coached from under 19 level.

Ali insists, however, he is not giving any consideration to his future and is worried only about Tuesday’s match.

"I am a professional coach, so I am not thinking about [resigning]," Ali said after their loss to Japan last week.

"We have another game coming. We lost only three points here. We have not lost our chances to qualify."

Mabkout will lead the line, and the leading scorer in the Arabian Gulf League will need to be more ruthless in front of goal.

The Golden Boot winner at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup was guilty of wasting chances the last time UAE played Australia in Abu Dhabi in September, and spurned a glorious chance to equalise against Japan last week - a miss that proved quite costly in the end.

The return of Ahmed Khalil, who has overcome his calf problem and is expected to replace Ismail Matar in the starting XI, will add extra strength to the Emirati attack.

Khalil is the UAE's leading scorer in qualifying, with four goals in this third round of qualifying and 15 in total across the second and third rounds.

Australia’s new-look defence was badly exposed at times by Iraq last Thursday, but they cannot afford to be so generous to Mabkhout and Khalil.

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4 min read
Published 27 March 2017 at 5:30pm
By Paul Williams