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Last Thursday, Shabab Al-Ahli of the UAE drew 1-1 in the opening round of games in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League against Ahal of Turkmenistan, a team making a debut appearance in the tournament.

What was more of note however was a familiar face — and head of hair — coming off the bench with 18 minutes remaining. Omar Abdulrahman trotting onto the pitch in Jeddah was a welcome sight for anyone with even the slightest interest in Asian football. 

There was a time when many would have expected the Emirati star to be coming on as a Champions League substitute for and against a big European team. There were many times when articles about the 30-year-old would have focused on which of the big leagues would be most suited to the talents of the playmaker who stepped into the global limelight at Old Trafford as the UAE met Uruguay in the 2012 Olympics. As time passed, the conversation became more about whether he would go west at all. Europe is now a distant dream, one now replaced by the hope that one of Asia’s biggest talents will be able to make his mark once more on the world’s biggest continent. 

There is nothing wrong with that. Abdulrahman has already had a fine career with four UAE league titles with Al-Ain and the Saudi Super Cup during a brief spell with Riyadh powerhouse Al-Hilal. He made headlines at the 2012 Olympics, won the 2013 Gulf Cup as tournament MVP, led his national team to third place at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia and then, the following year, he was named Asian Player of the Year after helping Al-Ain to the final. That he was subject to very close attention and some rough treatment from the victorious Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea was both a source of frustration as well as a compliment.

Looking back, if he was to go abroad, 2016 should have been the time. There wasn’t much more to achieve in Asia and there was interest from Europe. Manchester City had made an offer in 2012 after the player had trialed at the club. Arsenal and Barcelona were tracking his career and there were many others interested. Instead, he stayed, and then came the injuries — serious ones that curtailed the player’s career and have become more frequent. In the past two years, he has made just four league starts. Early last year, he was released by Al-Jazira.

Now he is back to fitness, and he is back on the pitch with Shabab Al-Ahli. The hair is not quite as busy as it was in his pomp, but it still makes him one of the most instantly recognizable players in Asian football. Now, the continent sits back to see if the skills stand out as much as before.

If any coach can help it happen, it is Mahdi Ali. The Al-Ahli boss was in charge of the UAE national team when the player known as “Amoory” was in his prime and also when he was coming up through the various age levels. The two know each other well, and the Dubai-born tactician often demonstrated his willingness to put a protective arm around Abdulrahman when need be. He also knows as well as anyone the skills that the No. 10 possesses. 

Al-Ahli reached the final of the 2015 Champions League and would love nothing more than another good run in Asia. Their league form has been disappointing this season with four straight losses leaving them in fifth, nine points behind fourth. There is going to be no top-three finish this season. Asia offers the biggest prize.

That is the same for Abdulrahman. Only he knows whether he was desperate to play in Europe and how he feels about not doing so. Now though, he has a chance for some serious game time and also to show that he still has what it takes to shine in Asia, or even to light up the Champions League. 

The group that his team find themselves in is not the most challenging. As well as the Turkmen debutants Ahal, there are Al-Gharafa of Qatar and Iran’s Foolad. Al-Ahli should be focused on getting into the last 16. It is true that the knockout stages will not start until early next year, but if the playmaker can make a difference in Asia then he may just find himself with more playing time in the final stages of the league season. If that happens, then a recall to the national team for the first time since 2019 could be on the cards. An appearance in the World Cup play-off against Australia in June looks out of reach at the moment but is not beyond the realms of possibility and would be a tantalizing prospect. There are still dreams to be had.

For now, though, it is all about playing regular football for the first time in over two years. Chances of Barcelona or Manchester are over, but there is still time to show Asia once more that Abdulrahman is a player that needs to be watched, both by opposition defenses and millions sat at home.

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