Thursday night was a sure thing. Three points in the bag as the UAE marches to Qatar 2022.
Lebanon had other plans to frustrate the UAE.
The national team lost the opportunity of a flying start to the final phase of World Cup qualification. It was painful as — let’s be realistic — this was a three-pointer and the toughest teams are yet to come.
However, there is a lot of light in the tunnel. South Korea, Iraq, Iran and — next up — Syria are in the headlights. But Korea could only muster a scoreless draw with Iraq and Iran secured a 1-0 over Syria,
The UAE will have to finish in the top two of the group to qualify directly for the World Cup in Qatar next year, or finish third and enter a play-off, which is a scenario no one wants.
If that happens, the UAE will face Group B third-place finishers and possibly another play-off against a South American team. Who fancies a trip to Colombia?
In Group A, Iran and South Korea are the main candidates to qualify directly for the tournament. Syria and Iraq will be contenders, teams that are very competitive, as was saw with Iraq’s draw in South Korea.
Remember that South Korea have qualified for every World Cup since 1986, and Iran, with the exception of the 2002 and 2010 tournaments, also have a regular presence.
Here is the good news.
If the UAE win next Tuesday against Syria, they will be on four points and sitting pretty.
Here is the bad news.
South Korea, Iran and Iraq await.
They should beat Syria on Tuesday, but nothing is guaranteed. Coach Bert van Marwijk has a lot of experience and took the Saudi Arabia team to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Now back with the UAE, he has implemented a process of development and created a style and identity of his own game in the formation of the 4-3-3.
Despite the setback, and after seven months in charge, the transformation of the team is visible, not only in the results (five games — four wins, one draw) but the most surprising thing is the identity that the team showed during this period.
The style of play is all-out attack, domineering and attractive to watch.
Against Lebanon this was evident as demonstrated by the UAE’s 70 per cent of possession. The team seemed to be in control of the game. An attacking style of play with decent and patient performances. But it didn’t happen.
The UAE have been amazing under Van Marwijk’s reign, as they scored 26 goals and conceded only four - counting friendlies - and it was a pity that Ali Mabkhout was unlucky in the Lebanon game.
Despite the setback, tactically Van Marwijk has been trying to build a consistent squad, relying on a consistent defence and a midfield with a mixture of youth and maturity, and up front he took advantage of the naturalisation of Fabio Lima and Caio Canedo to better serve Mabkhout.
The upcoming matches will show whether the draw with Lebanon was a hiccup along the way and if they can maintain the same level that took them this far.
Despite the remarkable improvement, the UAE need to evolve to a higher level, namely presenting more solutions in attack to open opposing defences very closed as was the case in the last game.
Van Marwijk, his technical team and the UAE FA have created the right environment for success and give UAE football the desired identity: attacking, dominant, attractive and effective football.
Just use quality the right way, be patient and build on the one point already in the bag.