The real work begins for Bert van Marwijk on Tuesday (16:45 KO) when his UAE side play their opening World Cup 2022 qualifier in Malaysia.
A heaving, 87,411-capacity Bukit Jalil National Stadium will provide a daunting stage to launch the Whites’ bid for just a second-ever entry. A pair of victories under Mahdi Ali were registered against the hosts during 2018’s second round, but last year’s final loss in the AFF Suzuki Cup to Vietnam and Johor Darul Ta’zim’s debut in the 2019 AFC Champions League points to much-sterner opposition this time around.
Beaten World Cup 2010 finalist Van Marwijk, 67, oversaw heavy warm-up wins against minnows Dominican Republic (4-0) and Sri Lanka (5-1) last week. His first games in charge also allowed pivotal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman to end a 10-month injury absence.
The potential role of the celebrated 2016 AFC Player of the Year is just one of several pre-match talking points:
BERT’S BIG CALLS
An Oranje-coloured revolution is under way in the Emirati ranks.
Specifics of how this succession plan will be represented versus the Malayan Tigers, however, remain tantalisingly unclear.
The bold Van Marwijk has torn down the Golden Generation’s faded visage since July’s first get-together in Austria and produced a belated injection of youth.
This drive to enact change has caused nine players aged 23 or under to travel east within a 26-man squad. Necessary alterations after the ultimate World Cup 2018 failure under Edgardo Bauza and 2019 Asian Cup pain with the moribund Alberto Zaccheroni.
Precious little information seeped out of the Bahrain training camp. Matches there against the Dominicans and Sri Lanka provided a private test bed for different tactics, plus personnel.
Will ascendant Al Wasl winger Ali Saleh, 19, be rewarded for a goal upon his first start against Sri Lanka? Can promising young defenders like Al Jazira’s Khalifa Al Hammadi and Mohammed Al Attas be thrown straight into the Bukit Jalil bear pit, or will wise heads such as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club veteran Walid Abbas remain in situ?
Van Marwijk is no stranger to transformation. He took over a rabble with Saudi Arabia during August 2015 and, acrimoniously, departed as a hero in September 2017 once a return to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 had been joyously secured.
A repeat of history is expected by his UAE Football Association paymasters.
Nascent calls made in Malaysia could decide the destinies of coach and country, specifically his use of Amoory…
The temptation to thrust one of Asia’s greats straight back into red-hot competitive action would be overwhelming for most coaches.
Van Marwijk’s CV, however, evidences he is not most coaches. Reason rather than passion will dominate discussions about Amoory’s role with a coaching staff that contains long-term No2 Roel Coumans and ex-Real Madrid player John Metgod.
After 315 days, one missed Asian Cup and an acrimonious departure for Al Jazira from Al Hilal, the 27-year-old returned as a second-half substitute against the Lankans. His suspect knee held up then and throughout training since, plus he was presented to the media at Monday’s pre-match press conference.
Can such a sustained period of inactivity be tolerated? Intriguingly, a reliance upon Amoory is not so intrinsic these days.
New Jazira team-mate Khalfan Mubarak oozes creativity, although a mixed Asian Cup in Zaccheroni’s constricted system is inarguable.
Conversely, if prosaic team shape is key to success in Malaysia, the likes of resurgent Al Nasr midfielder Habib Fardan or Al Wahda’s Khalil Ibrahim may relegate their heralded team-mate to an impact substitutes’ role.
TAMING THE MALAYAN TIGERS
Memories of contrasting results, both new and old, will inspire Tuesday’s hosts.
A shameful night for Malaysian football during September 2015 saw the Whites inflict a 10-0 away loss upon them at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Abdulrahman, at the heights of his creative powers, laid on six assists to ensure a heaviest-ever defeat.
November 2015’s return match at Selangor’s Shah Alam Stadium included a curled shot of outstanding quality from the same man. This would, eventually, ensure a 2-1 victory.
Tangible – and rapid – progress in the interim has included the emergence of a big-spending south-east Asian club giant in Johor, plus an enlivening run to the regional AFF showpiece.
Forward Syafiq Ahmad has emerged as a reliable source of goals, while tireless defender Matthew Davies is one of several call-ups mined from the Malay diaspora during recent years.
Vital momentum was continued amid Thursday’s epic 3-2 comeback win at great rivals Indonesia at Jakarta’s febrile Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. A 97th-minute winner from substitute Mohamadou Sumareh on enemy soil sparked mass disorder.
21,000 Tiket Telah Terjual— FA Malaysia (@FAM_Malaysia) September 9, 2019
Beli lebih mudah & murah secara online di https://t.co/yPVcBAL5ko sehingga 11.59 malam ini.
Tiket juga boleh dibeli di kaunter tiket stadium mulai 2.00 petang esok di Pintu A, B, C & D (Malaysia) & Pintu E (UAE).#FAM #HarimauMalaya #AsianQualifiers pic.twitter.com/NJVjdpmBlz
Early points on the board in Group G – and ones adorned with meaning.
AFF conquerors Vietnam and regional heavyweights Thailand are also contained in a uniquely homogenous section, minus the Middle East’s UAE.
Such strength means that only top spot may be enough to earn progression to the third round.
Malaysia will feel, justifiably so judged by current results, that they are no longer also-rans.
Now comes the time to prove it against successive Asian Cup semi-finalists and the country that caused a national embarrassment.
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