Amid all the hype of the Indian Premier League and the cricket T20 World Cup in the UAE, the nation’s football team got back to business with a valiant, eventful and frustrating 1-0 loss in the Qatar 2022 World Cup third-round qualifiers against powerhouse Iran at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai.
With two draws in the previous two clashes ahead of the match against Iran on Thursday, the UAE were in contention for a spot at the big table as they lurked in third spot behind the Iranians and South Korea.
And Bert van Marwijk’s men came out to make a statement with Ali Mabkhout once again proving to be a persistent threat up front alongside Mohammed Bandar and Ibrahim Khalil.
After an even opening 30 minutes, the game sprang to life when Bandar found Khalil unmarked in the Iran box, but the quick ball in even took him by surprise and the chance was wasted.
In front of a hefty crowd — the UAE FA had approved an 80 per cent capacity in Dubai — the UAE continued to probe as the Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand was embarrassed by a short pass to a defender and Khalil almost snuck in to leave him with a red face.
At the other end, Iran’s Medhi Taremi had a great chance to open the scoring but his shot came off one of his own teammates, much to the relief of UAE keeper Ali Khaseif.
With the deadlock yet to be broken at the break, an animated Van Marwijk was clearly full of encouraging words as his men went up the tunnel.
After the interval, the UAE were showing plenty of pace on the wings and Fabio Lima was causing the Iranians problems on the right hand side.
Iran’s Hossein Kanani should have done better with a free header after 56 minutes, before the UAE roared up to the other end and Mabkhout was denied by Beiranvand.
On the hour mark, Khaseif had to look alert to stop Iran captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh at his near post before the game erupted to life once again. Moments later Mabkhout was clean through only to be hauled down on the edge of the area by Shoja Khalilzadeh, who was shown a red card and was lucky not to concede a penalty.
Mayhem ensued when the red card was overturned for a strangely late offside decision and a lengthy VAR delay and Khalilzadeh returned to the field and Iran got off the hook.
Worse was to come for the UAE as a defensive mix-up allowed Iran’s Mehdi Taremi to nip through and open the scoring on 70 minutes.
The UAE lost their shape and their cool and a second goal looked to be on the cards for Iran on 77 minutes, with Khaseif once again cut adrift by his defence. Fortunately Taremi was narrowly offside.
A wave of red shirts came at the home defence now as Iran knew a win would take them top of the table. Some valiant tackles kept the scoreline down, but the UAE had to accept a 1-0 loss despite an optimistic effort from substitute Sebastian Tagliabue, who almost caught out Beiranvand to steal a point.
The drama was not done as Khaseif did well to stop a late penalty from Sardar Azmoun after Taremi was fouled in the area by Abdalla Ramadan.
Earlier, South Korea edged Syria 2-1 and Iraq played out a 0-0 draw with Lebanon. Iraq are next up for the UAE, again at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai.