Arruabarrena’s side must win their final group game or hope Iraq drop points against Syria to keep alive their hopes of navigating the play-offs to reach Qatar
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The UAE had been provided a huge hand-up, or so it seemed.
Lebanon were beaten by bottom side Syria in Sidon, a shock 3-0 loss that looked to clear the path to the World Cup play-offs.
A draw later Thursday, against Iraq and on neutral territory in Riyadh, would do. Sitting third in Group A on the penultimate match day of the final round of qualification for Qatar 2022, the UAE knew exactly what was required.
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Yet Iraq made the most of a severely disjointed and diluted display from their rivals, and breathed life back into their own push for the play-offs instead. Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s debut as manager ended with considerable angst.
As it stands with one round remaining, the UAE stay third, albeit a solitary point ahead of Iraq with one match to go. Unquestionably, it should not have come to this.
On Tuesday, the UAE host top-of-the-table South Korea, already qualified but no doubt beaming following Thursday’s 2-0 triumph against fellow qualifiers Iran in Seoul. Iraq, meanwhile, take on Syria in Dubai with both buoyed by their latest wins, while fifth-placed Lebanon, three points back from the UAE and therefore still mathematically in with a shout, travel to Iran. However, it feels a straight shootout between the UAE and Iraq.
Crucially, Arruabarrena’s new side continue to control their destiny; victory against South Korea at Al Maktoum Stadium would clinch the play-off place and set up a summer assignment with Australia and, should they prevail in that, another with a South American rival for a berth at the global finals later this year. Even a draw, or a defeat on Tuesday, could suffice. But rest assured, it will be fraught and potentially frantic.
On Thursday night, having witnessed a wildly poor performance, Arruabarrena could point to a number of key absentees for the malaise: regular No 1 Ali Khaseif, influential midfielders Abdullah Ramadan and Tahnoun Al Zaabi, instrumental forward Fabio De Lima. Even, to-this-point-underused, striker Sebastian Tagliabue.
Yet the change in formation – three centre-backs sat behind two defensive midfielders – yielded little result. The lack of a playmaker, be it deep-lying or further forward, was obvious. Damaging, too.
Some solace, then, should be found in Ramadan’s return from suspension but, with record goalscorer Ali Mabkhout picking up a booking against Iraq and now banned for South Korea, his regular foil up front has been removed. Perhaps Al Zaabi, suspended on Thursday but injured also, will be available once again. Undeniably, the UAE need options.
So, despite the window flung open by Syria, it all comes down to Matchday 10, the final set of fixtures in the final round of qualification for the first World Cup in the Gulf. The UAE have left themselves with much to do, but they must clear minds and focus on one last charge. It calls for sturdy limbs and strong heads, maybe even a slice of good fortune. Put simply, they have to show up and dig down on Tuesday.
Updated: March 28, 2022, 4:52 AM