‘This win has made many things good for us,’ says coach as national team march on in World Cup qualifiers
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By any means possible. That was the message with which coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena signed off his pre-match press briefing ahead of the UAE’s daunting assignment with unbeaten South Korea.
All that mattered was a win. If it needed to be ugly, so be it. But the players needed to claw for every inch if they were going to do something that no other team had managed in a year, and inflict a loss on the Koreans.
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As it turned out, the performance was both effective and – in its own way – lovable, too.
It was a classic of the smash-and-grab genre. One rapid, clinical raid, executed by Harib Abdullah with the poise of a seasoned international veteran, rather than a callow 19-year-old locum for Ali Mabkhout, the most prolific scorer in UAE history.
Even Son Hueng-min, the captain of the opposition who was celebrating his 100th appearance for South Korea, could scarcely have done it better.
And then a rearguard that was by turns dogged and canny, and courageous all the way through.
Sure, luck went their way at times. Khalid Eisa needed lengthy treatment after crashing into his left-hand post when he was beaten by a looping volley from range by Hwang Hee-chan which landed on his crossbar and bounced to safety.
The Al Ain goalkeeper recovered and was crucial in repelling the Korean assault in the second half. He tipped a close-range header from Hwang Ui-jo onto the crossbar and over. Later, he pawed away a deflected free kick from Son. Both saves required remarkable elasticity.
All over the pitch, players gave everything they had. So spent was Abdullah himself, the teenaged forward had to be substituted after twice being treated for cramp on the field.
Abdelaziz Haikal wore one powerful drive on the body and looked shell-shocked. It was the only time in the whole process the Shabab Al Ahli Dubai defender had not appeared to be enjoying himself.
Wow. Harib Abdullah gives #UAE the lead – youngster scores on 1st start for national team. As stands, UAE will have #WorldCup play-off spot.
South Korea, unbeaten in #AsianQualifiers Group A, hadn’t conceded in almost 7 hours’ game time.pic.twitter.com/d94RTBfYCs
— John McAuley (@_JMcAuley) March 29, 2022
A day earlier, it had been Haikal who had attended the press briefing with his coach, and had had the temerity to encourage Arruabarrena to try to crack a smile.
By the end all it, everyone related to the home team was smiling broadly.
“We played against a very tough opponent from a very high level,” Arruabarrena said after the 1-0 win was secured, to earn the UAE a place in the next phase of qualifying.
“I want to thank my players for the effort they showed today. Their focus and concentration was excellent.
“I also want to thank the fans, the administration, everyone that supported the team today. We can’t stop. We have to improve for the next matches.”
The next competitive match being a playoff against Australia in Qatar in June. The winners of that game will progress to face Peru, the fifth-placed side in South American qualifying, in a one-off, last-chance eliminator. Only then will World Cup qualification be confirmed.
“We have had enough matches to learn from mistakes, and to find solutions and work out how we can repair our national team again,” Arruabarrena said.
“The atmosphere was not good, especially after the loss to Iraq. But our players’ performance and the win has made many things good for us.
“We have to improve. We have a lot of goals we have to achieve with the national team. Our players have to continue to improve, both with the national team and with their clubs.”
Although UAE had managed just 22 per cent of possession, and zero corners compared to 16 by their guests, they were good value for their win. That was the view of the opposition coach, Paulo Bento.
“I knew before the UAE would play with a different strategy to what they did in the Iraq match,” Bento said, referencing UAE’s 1-0 loss against the Iraqis in Saudi Arabia in their previous qualifying match last week.
“I told my players they would do everything they could to win this match as it was the last chance for them to qualify for the playoff.
“We should have made a better performance than we did. We should have produced the same level of ambition and desire as what the UAE players showed in the match – and as what our players had shown in the previous matches.
“It was a very bad performance by us. Football is about competing and fighting in every minute and every second. The win was very fair for UAE, and congratulations to them.”
Updated: March 30, 2022, 7:06 AM