‘Mission 2022’ began in earnest last week when the UAE announced Bert van Marwijk as their next coach.
To make the next World Cup, he will need to utilise all the wisdom accrued during more than 20 years in management highlighted by qualifying Saudi Arabia to last summer’s edition and dragging his native Netherlands to 2010’s final.
Here, Sport360° assesses what awaits in the 66-year-old’s in tray at the UAE Football Association’s Al Khawaneej headquarters when he gets down to work:
A ‘Golden Generation’ that, ultimately, came up short.
That is the unavoidable conclusion about the group that shone at the London 2012 Olympics and finished an exhilarating third at Asian Cup 2015, yet failed a once-predestined quest to make World Cup 2018.
The challenge for Van Marwijk is to pick apart the remnants, choosing who to retain and who must be consigned to the past.
A delicate balancing act is required. Blood youngsters – Al Wahda goalkeeper Mohamed Al Shamsi, club-mates Ahmed Rashed plus Yahya Al Ghassani, Al Jazira defender Khalifa Al Hammadi and Al Wasl forward Ali Saleh immediately spring to mind – who will be of increasing importance during the third round of World Cup 2022 qualifying, while not leaving the team too callow to advance from the second round.
The celebrated tripartite of Al Hilal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club forward Ahmed Khalil still possess the ability and relative youth – they are aged 28 and under – to remain centre points.
Big decisions, however, must be made on stalwarts aged around 30-years old, a list headlined by; Shabab Al Ahli winger Ismail Al Hammadi, Jazira centre-back Fares Juma and Al Ain centre-midfielder Amer Abdulrahman.
جانب من تدريبات منتخبنا الوطني في ملعب الشعبة العسكرية.. pic.twitter.com/Kxm30hXbiM— UAE NT (@uaent2019) March 24, 2019
Predecessor Albert Zaccheroni put the Whites on a miserable path to the semi-finals at Asian Cup 2019.
A chronic lack of goals, wins and entertainment defined his miserly 15-month reign. Another key facet was a lack of tactical clarity.
Pre-tournament, the Whites oscillated between a three-man and four-man defence. Experimentation continued at the competition, itself, on home soil, where they used four different formations in six matches and averaged 2.8 changes per line-up.
It is no surprise that fluid football eluded the outmoded Zaccheroni. Van Marwijk’s long-standing commitment to a 4-2-3-1 formation must, in good time, match his consistency of player selection.
REASONS TO BELIEVE
Apathy has pervaded Emirati football.
From the dreary Asian Cup to downgrading in investment that has visibly impacted the Arabian Gulf League, a downturn is undeniable.
It is now up to Van Marwijk to lift the mood, on the pitch and off it.
His introductory press conference gave a glimpse into what is to come. Brusque, self-assured and unflinching in the belief that only a second-ever World Cup-entry will be secured under him.
The Saudis found themselves at a similar low ebb when he was hired in August 2015. An injection of esprit de corps witnessed their 12-year absence from the World Cup ended by September 2017, prior to a shock divorce from the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
Yet, Van Marwijk is still hailed as a hero in the Kingdom.
They even tried to rehire him before World Cup 2018, despite – apparently insurmountable – differences caused by a reluctance to live there. This speaks volumes.
The only note of caution comes from last year’s unsatisfying six-month stint with Australia. Van Marwijk claimed he “didn’t regret” anything after a group-stage exit at the World Cup, though this view wasn’t unanimous among a national media that criticised conservative selections and tactics.
Omar Abdulrahman has gone from the crown prince of UAE football to comparative stranger.
The success or failure of the 2016 AFC Player of the Year’s reintegration will help define Van Marwijk’s tenure.
Amoory missed Asian Cup 2019 and the November friendlies through serious injury, the preceding summer camp as lengthy negotiations carried on that eventually took him to Saudi heavyweights Al Hilal and the March get together amid an enduring fallout from the breaking of curfew ahead of January 2018’s Gulf Cup final loss to Oman – a showpiece in which he missed two penalties.
Amid this maelstrom, a controversial autumnal interview about the causes of the playmaker’s free transfer away from Al Ain further stoked upset.
At 27-years old, Abdulrahman has age on his side. Recuperation from another anterior cruciate ligament operation should, also, be completed before September’s qualification kick-off.
There is a way back into the fold for Amoory. It is now incumbent on Van Marwijk to find it.
Shabab Al Ahli got off to a strong start and controlled the possession in the early stages of the game. Mohamed Juma forced Al Wahda goalkeeper Rashed Al Suwaidi into a save only three minutes after kick-off, while Saud Abdelrazaq tried his luck 15 minutes later but was denied by Al Suwaidi.
On the half-hour mark, Shabab Al Ahli came close to finding the back of the net. Juma found the ball on the edge of the box before dribbling past a defender, but his close-range shot hit the woodwork.
The Clarets responded five minutes later. Right after coming on as a substitute for Abdulla Anwar, Sebastian Tagliabue teed up the on-rushing Ismail Matar whose strike was brilliantly saved by Majed Naser.
The final five minutes of the first half were a different story. Shabab Al Ahli broke the deadlock five minutes before the interval. An inch-perfect cross from Abdelaziz Ali found Henrique Luvannor inside the box, and the Moldova international slotted home to give his side a 1-0 advantage.
Shabab Al Ahli’s lead, however, didn’t last long as Argentine veteran Tagliabue leveled the scores in the dying moments of the first half.
The 34-year-old forward’s powerful strike curled beyond Nasser, his fourth goal in the Arabian Gulf Cup this season.
Substitute Ismail Al Hammadi tested Al Suwaidi in the 66th minute but the latter was alert as the game remained deadlocked.
Shabab Al Ahli piled on the pressure as they searched for the winner in the remaining minutes. Al Suwaidi denied another replacement Jaime Ayovi with four minutes to go, before saving Majed Hassan’s effort deep in injury time.
Neither side could find the winning goal in the closing stages, forcing the clash into extra-time.
It was the cue for Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s side to take charge as, only five minutes after the restart, Shabab Al Ahli took a 2-1 lead. After capitalising on a defensive mistake from Wahda defenders, Ayovi sent a close-range effort past Al Suwaidi to take his side a step closer towards the title.
As the Clarets pushed for an equaliser, Shabab scored their third of the night to put the result beyond any doubt.
Al Hammadi dribbled past a host of Wahda defenders inside the box before passing the ball to Mauro Diaz. Ecuador forward Ayovi found the Argentine midfielder’s pass and slotted home his second of the night.
To add insult to injury, Henk ten Cate’s side were reduced to 10 men six minutes from time as Leonardo was sent off after being shown a second yellow card.
Wahda, who have two titles to their name, failed to become the first team to win the trophy two years in a row. Meanwhile, Shabab Al Ahli won a record-extending fourth title after they were named champions in 2012, 2014 and 2017.
UAE superstar Omar Abdulrahman’s esteemed doctor is convinced he will return as the “best soccer player that we have in the Arabian Gulf” from his serious knee injury.
Abdulrahman, 27, suffered disaster in October when he jarred his right leg when playing for Saudi Professional League champions Al Hilal and ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament [ACL].
This incident required immediate corrective treatment from the world-renowned orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ramon Cugat – who has also cared for the likes of Xavi, Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres – in Barcelona. Devastatingly, it ruled him out of January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil and, likely, the rest of 2018/19.
A welcome update was provided, however, on the Crescent’s verified Twitter account late on Wednesday night.
“Yesterday [Tuesday], he flew to Barcelona and he visited us,” stated Dr Cugat, with Amoory sat alongside him. “The knee is without liquid, it has good stability, the muscle is fine, the range of motion…
“We performed an MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan] and it showed us that there is a very good evolution of the new ACL, [from an operation] that we performed about four months ago.
“For the moment, we are very happy. Everybody is thinking that Omar can come back to play football and he will be the best soccer player that we have in the Arabian Gulf.
“I’m so, so happy. Not only are me, but all the people – the physical therapists and everyone else is happy.”
This positive development will be welcome relief for an attacking midfielder who has a worrying history of knee problems. A second surgery on his ACL caused him to miss the first half of the 2011/12 season, while 2014/15 was also blighted with similar issues.
Riyadh-born Abdulrahman completed a childhood dream last August when he contentiously exited Al Ain – after a decade with the first team that included 11 major trophies, 62 goals, 114 assists and 229 appearances – upon the expiry of his contract and joined Hilal. A one-season deal was rumoured to have been inked, worth Dh60 million.
This followed overtures from a number of sides in France, the Netherlands and Spain.
With the Crescent, the 2016 AFC Player of the Year got one assist and one goal during five SPL starts.
In his absence at the Asian Cup, the host nation produced a number of insipid displays along the way to a harrowing semi-final exit.
Dr Cugat, 68, is currently co-director of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Traumatology Hospital Quiron Barcelona, chairman of the board of the Garcia Cugat Foundation for Biomedical Research and president of the Medical Council at the Catalan Mutual Insurance of Football under the Royal Spanish Football Federation.