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.
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