The UAE are poised to rack up plenty of air miles after Wednesday’s draw for the second round of World Cup 2022 qualifiers delivered a quartet of south-east Asian nations.
New boss Bert van Marwijk must successfully plot a path in Group G past Thailand (who dealt a terminal blow in the 2018 process), improving Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia from September 10-June 9, 2020.
With only the eight pool winners and four-best runners-up set to advance into the third-and-final stage, the task to secure a second-ever entry for a ‘Golden Generation’ losing its sheen is not without complication.
Here are the main talking points from the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:
STATE OF PLAY
Whenever Australia and Everton great Tim Cahill is involved, World Cup pain, seemingly, follows for the UAE.
At a critical juncture in the previous running, the veteran forward’s cute finish earned a deflating late win for the Socceroos in Abu Dhabi. This time, the now-retired record breaker was picking out the balls to give Van Marwijk – his eventual boss at last summer’s global tournament – a serious headache.
Judged on sheer difficulty of opposition, the Whites would have struggled to have it much harder even as top seeds. Group C – with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain – is the only other one to contain three 2019 Asian Cup knockout entrants.
Added stress for the UAE is provided by extensive travel. Each away game will require round trips of more than 10,000 kilometres, eating into recovery and preparation.
The same issues will hamper the visitors from the Far East in the Middle East. But their vagaries increase opportunity for the unexpected.
The UAE also drew Malaysia at this point for 2018. Those matches act as a perfect barometer of the binary impact these issues present.
A humiliating 10-0 defeat at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium for the Malayan Tigers was followed by a tense 2-1 triumph for the relieved visitors to Shah Alam Stadium.
With their squad influx and a fresh coach on-board, the Whites are – at best – slender favourites for top spot.
NOT SO ‘GOLDEN’ NOW?
With two AFC Players of the Year and a contender for the continent’s best striker being overseen by the exalted manager who led Saudi Arabia back to the global arena, the UAE should have been a team to avoid in the midweek ceremony.
Especially when they were semi-finalists at the Asian Cup, for the second-successive tournament, little more than six months ago.
They also enter the 2022 system ranked higher by FIFA (67) than they did for 2018 (68).
Yet, Thailand and Vietnam will relish their presence this time.
Both POYs – Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club forward Ahmed Khalil and Al Hilal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman – have been ravaged by injury in recent years and no other side convinced less upon their journey to the continent’s last-four. Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout is also arrowing in on his 29th birthday.
The feeling that 2018 was the missed chance is difficult to shake.
Van Marwijk also acrimoniously departed the Saudis after qualification was assured in September 2017 and will be nearly 70 if the UAE make it into March 2022’s expected date for the inter-confederation play-offs.
The beaten World Cup 2010 finalist is, however, their greatest asset.
His passion, dedication and aptitude has been on show throughout the first of two training camps before September 10’s second-round opener in Malaysia.
Responsibility now lies on the senior players to ease indoctrination into his 4-2-3-1 formation and wider methodology. This process is helped by Khalil being present in Salzburg, Austria, this week after an influential and prolific end to 2018/19.
Talents of rare repute also exist in Al Wasl’s 17-year-old Scottish/Emirati forward Ali Saleh, now Al Ain centre-back Mohammed Ali Shaker and Sharjah centre midfielder Majed Suroor.
Regeneration is well under way.
THAI’D UP IN KNOTS?
It would, however, be a critical error to downplay Thailand and Vietnam.
The UAE’s long-held dream of making World Cup 2018 was effectively ended by a 1-1 draw at the Thais’ steamy Rajamangala Stadium in June 2017.
A trio of their players – miniature attacking midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin, midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan and defender Theerathon Bunmathan – are prominent J1 League imports. This Japanese connection has been strengthened by Wednesday’s official hiring of the Samurai Blue’s World Cup 2018 boss Akira Nishino.
Vietnam are a new hotbed of player production. Forward Nguyen Cong Phuong has just inked a loan deal with Belgium top-flight outfit Sint-Truiden, while Hanoi FC’s Nguyen Quang Hai claimed Most Valuable Player after their remarkable triumph in last winter’s AFF Suzuki Cup.
Elsewhere, Malaysia will hope rampant investment in 2019 AFC Champions League debutants Johor Darul Ta’zim creates a sizeable improvement in the underperforming national team’s fortunes.
Fellow geographical giants Indonesia are back in the mix after a FIFA ban for government interference ruled them out of the 2018 circuit.
An exacting section. But one Van Marwijk will back himself to navigate.
Dutch supremo Bert van Marwijk’s UAE reign has got off to a dispiriting start after it was confirmed pivotal attackers Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout will not be present at his first training camp.
Sunday witnessed the beginning, in earnest, of the Whites’ nine-day get together in Salzburg, Austria. This spell provides both an introduction to the beaten World Cup 2010 finalist’s vaunted methods and a means for him to assess options ahead of September’s commencement of World Cup 2022 qualifying.
A trio of call-ups, however, were missing from the original 27-man roster selected in late May. 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman has still not proven his fitness after October’s serious knee injury incurred with Saudi Professional League heavyweights Al Hilal, while 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout and youthful Al Jazira team-mate Zayed Al Ameri also aren’t in attendance.
“Omar Abdulrahman is absent from this team camp. Ali Mabkhout is missing because of special circumstances and Zayed Al Ameri did not join the internal gathering in Dubai,” a UAE Football Association statement read.
“The list is free of Al Wahda players, who are preparing for the 2019 AFC Champions League round-of-16 clash with Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr.”
The Whites are also eagerly awaiting Wednesday’s second-round draw in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They will then find out their opening opponents on September 5 and September 10, with a second camp – at a yet-to-be-decided location – set to get going on August 24.
Van Marwijk, 67, has been challenged to secure a second-ever qualification for the 1990 finalists. He was appointed in March on a four-year deal as successor to bemoaned Italian Alberto Zaccheroni.
Bani Yas’ extensive and ambitious summer rebuild has continued apace with the capture of South Africa playmaker Ayanda Patosi on a one-season loan deal from Cape Town City.
Patosi, 26, excelled during the first half of the year at Iran giants Esteghlal. His four goals and seven assists from 19 appearances under Winfried Schafer, 69, saw the German coach aggressively pursue a reunion upon arrival in Abu Dhabi.
The exciting new addition – for whom a permanent option has been negotiated – twice claimed the Belgium Cup at Lokeren from 2011-17, before returning home to CTC.
A superb sixth-placed finish was secured in 2018/19 by the Sky Blues upon their return to the Arabian Gulf League. But they could not agree a new contract with Croatian tactician Krunoslav Jurcic, leading to a situation where only prolific Spanish striker Pedro Conde is expected to be retained from the four-player foreign quota.
Superb Brazilian defensive midfielder Luis Antonio, 28, was procured from Saudi Professional League-outfit Al Shabab earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Chile midfielder Esteban Pavez departed for Al Nasr on Sunday and admitted it “hurts” to leave Colo-Colo.
A $2.1 million deal has been agreed to bring the Copa America star to Al Maktoum Stadium.
“It hurts me to leave Colo-Colo, because it’s a club that I love, but I have to watch over my future,” he told La Tercera. “I’m 29-years old.”
Sweden striker Marcus Berg has joined Russia’s FC Krasnodar on a one-year deal after a sorry end to his Al Ain career.