The UAE continue to stumble towards January 2019’s Asian Cup.
In Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Venezuela which will be forever defined by 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman’s feeble first-half penalty, they went behind after one minute and were left without hope just two minutes after the interval.
A comfortable evening, then, in a deserted Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys for the victors, admittedly, ranked 45 places higher in 32nd by FIFA.
Yet this same side finished bottom of CONMEBOL qualifying for World Cup 2018. Plus, had lost three of their preceding four internationals.
Momentum gained in Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Honduras escaped into the Barcelona night.
Wednesday’s one-year anniversary at the helm for Alberto Zaccheroni has been met with recrimination, rather than joy. No surprise when the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan coach has won just a third of his 15 matches in charge, scoring a miserly nine goals along the way.
It’s now just one victory since January – and that came via a 3-0 walkover against minnows Laos last month. Hardly anything to shout about.
And yet, the early signs – at an organisation not usually prone to capriciousness – point towards the UAE Football Association reiterating a desire to see this project through.
All evidence, however, points to ruin headed in this direction.
Loyalty can be a dangerous game.
Fealty in the maudlin final months of Mahdi Ali’s reign only worked to critically impinge hopes of making the World Cup under belated successor Edgardo Bauza.
Zaccheroni’s tenure hangs by a thread. All logic points towards the inescapable necessity of termination.
It is not too late to effect positive change. A pair of training camps remain before January 5’s big kick-off at Zayed Sports City against Bahrain.
Not ideal timing. But equally, it’s not too late to fix the damage caused by the ill-fitting Zaccheroni regime.
This stance isn’t based in isolation.
Losing to Venezuela can be forgiven. Especially when 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout have been sent home with injury.
Even without this celebrated pair, some chances were created.
Zaccheroni will further point to Abdulrahman’s woefully under-hit spot-kick, that embarrassingly bobbled past the post.
This came five minutes before half-time. Two minutes after the restart and their disadvantage was doubled.
Where Zaccheroni’s reign becomes untenable is in the consistent lack of fighting spirit and dare that has been exhibited on the pitch.
The Whites failed to score from open play throughout a dull run at last winter’s Gulf Cup that, unsatisfactorily, ended with defeat on penalties in the final to unfancied Oman.
An experimental side then headed to Thailand for March’s King’s Cup. Rather than push for future opportunities, this bunch were effortlessly swatted aside by Slovakia and Gabon.
The summer brought a fresh low when European whipping boys Andorra were not unduly troubled during a 0-0 draw. This provided a worrisome end to a three-week camp in Austria.
Undercooked Trinidad and Tobago hadn’t played since April and trained only the day before September’s friendly. They came away with a comfortable 2-0 triumph from a match during which Mabkhout and Abdulrahman ended international absences caused by a broken curfew the night before January’s Gulf decider.
In truth, the ‘Zaccheroni project’ has been broken since the start.
His reign with Japan peaked with 2011’s Asian Cup success and reached its end thanks to World Cup 2014’s discordant group-stage exit, with one point.
At Beijing Guoan, nine points and seven goals from the opening nine matches of the 2016 season saw him instantly dismissed. Dismal figures which are mirrored in his current posting.
With the Whites, Zaccheroni’s trademark 3-4-3 formation and defensive principles jar with the talents he inherited. You cannot expect the principles of ‘Catenaccio’ to be applied successfully to Mohammed Al Menhali, an ageing Ismail Ahmed, converted centre-back Mohamed Ahmed and Mahmoud Khamis.
Anchor men such as Ahmed Barman and Khamis Esmail control opposition teams through possession, rather than diligence.
A switch to a familiar 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 set-up has provided some appeasement. So too the late acknowledgement of Al Jazira playmaker Khalfan Mubarak’s talents.
If it is enough to salvage ambitious hopes of recreating 1996’s run to the final when the continental competition last came to the UAE…
Well, that stance would require a dose of optimism utterly incongruous to the joyless tactics and fayre served up throughout Zaccheroni’s miserable stint.
The UAE will look to build on the positives from last week’s revitalising 1-1 draw with Honduras when they face Venezuela on Tuesday.
A superb curled shot, after an outstanding team move, from Al Hilal superstar Omar Abdulrahman saw the 2019 Asian Cup hosts battle back and avoid a fifth defeat from seven matches.
They will look to continue this upwards trend when they meet La Vinotinto – ranked 32 by FIFA, 45 places above their Middle Eastern-opponents – at Barcelona’s Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys.
ALBERTO’S FORWARD THINKING
Alberto Zaccheroni’s mixed year in charge of the Whites could have been described by one word – “miserly”.
His 13 matches before this international break had featured seven goals – of which three had come last month against minnows Laos. October’s planned step-up in class was met with trepidation, a feeling which deepened when star forwards Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil were sent home on Wednesday with minor injuries.
The Whites faithful, however, needn’t have worried. A switch to a 4-3-3 formation produced a lively performance against higher-ranked Honduras.
It will be intriguing to see which direction Zaccheroni now goes against Venezuela. Will he resort to type and shut up shop, or go for the jugular?
PLANS COULD GO SOUTH
Venezuela did not make World Cup 2018. Neither did the UAE.
There, however, is where the comparisons end.
Ex-goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel’s squad is littered with players from the globe’s major competitions. Skipper Tomas Rincon ploughs away in midfield for Torino, right-back Roberto Rosales is on loan at Espanyol, forward Adalberto Penaranda is within the Watford system and playmaker Romulo Otero boasts local knowledge through his employment at Saudi Arabia’s Al Wehda.
Despite this stellar cast and lofty FIFA ranking, they’ve lost three out of their four preceding matches. They’ll be determined to end this run.
UAE football fans switching on their televisions last Thursday were in for a shock.
A big hole in the domestic schedule existed where there should have been UAE v Honduras. As of Monday, there was no update on the UAE Football Association’s Twitter account about whether this situation has changed for Venezuela.
This blackout hurts both Whites fans and the development of a mollycoddled team.
The scrutiny and pressure as Asian Cup hosts will be a multitudes more than that provided by a low-key friendly on foreign soil.
If they can’t be trusted to handle that, there is genuine reason to worry ahead of January’s tournament.
New coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena gave himself a watching brief as youngster Khalfan Hassan doubled up in Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s 2-1 victory against Ajman in the Arabian Gulf Cup.
The ex-Al Wasl boss was officially presented as a replacement for the underwhelming Jose Luis Sierra only on Friday. This gave him too little time on the training pitch to take full charge for Sunday’s Group A-fixture.
For the upcoming era, diminutive teenage forward Hassan could prove to be an important figure. The 19-year-old capitalised on an error from giant centre-back Hassan Zahran to put the hosts at Rashid Stadium ahead just before the interval – this was his first-ever Shabab Al Ahli goal.
Nigerian forward Stanley Ohawuchi then got on the end of a loose clearance by defender Mohamed Jaber to level up on 62 minutes. Hassan’s night, however, was not done.
Only a minute later he tapped in after midfielder Ahmed Jshak’s mazy dribble.
Meanwhile, holders Al Wahda raced into the quarter-finals with a 2-0 triumph against Dibba Al Fujairah that made it a perfect four wins from four fixtures.
Forward Mohamed Al Hammadi’s first-time shot crept in on 19 minutes after exceptional work from full-back Khalil Ibrahim.
Ibrahim then got on the score sheet himself three minutes before half-time when he smartly converted when played clean through.
Bani Yas staged a dramatic fightback to win 2-1 at fellow promoted outfit Ittihad Kalba.
Abdullah Buashwan and prolific summer signing Pedro Conde cancelled out Mana Al Baroud’s early tap-in.