It’s taken a coach from the Low Lands to lift UAE spirits off the floor.
A demoralising few years had followed for anyone attached to the Whites since the unexpected high of 2015’s rousing – and surprise – run to the Asian Cup’s semi-finals. Their ‘Golden Generation’ lost its sheen, and paternal figure in Mahdi Ali, along the way to missing World Cup 2018, while a second-successive third-placed finish in the Asian spectacle under the tedious Alberto Zaccheroni left few positive feelings on home soil last January.
Direction, and a renewed sense of purpose, was desperately required. On the early evidence, they’ve, belatedly, been provided by the Netherlands’ Bert van Marwijk – and in good time, with a telling trip to Thailand coming up on Tuesday.
Vigour defined a second-half display against Indonesia on Thursday from which Al Jazira predator Ali Mabkhout produced a hat-trick that sent him into the record books as his nation’s leading scorer. These goals helped earn a 5-0 win that put the UAE top of Group G with a perfect six-point haul from two second-round World Cup 2022 qualifiers.
An inability to change gear created a stultifying side throughout the 2018 process, under Ali and uninspiring ex-Argentina supremo Edgardo Bauza. This propensity to make watching paint dry a favourable pastime was moved into a new sphere during Zaccheroni’s goal-shy, 15-month tenure.
Fear of repetition under the Van Marwijk regime had arisen in last month’s unpropitious competitive opener in Malaysia. With 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman restricted to a cameo role because of long-term injury, they recovered from a 33-second concession to limp home 2-1 winners.
A brace from Mabkhout saved the day from a match low on chances and excitement.
This picture did not look much brighter against lowly Indonesia for the first 45 minutes on Thursday. A difference of 101 places in the FIFA rankings did not play out, with a youthful Whites side – the same XI that started versus Malaysia – requiring gifts to go 1-0 up through Al Wahda midfielder Khalil Ibrahim.
But then came a torrent of goals when minds conditioned to torpor expected a drab side to go through the motions.
Van Marwijk has created sparks after years of darkness. His side must now catch fire on the outskirts of Bangkok.
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