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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Ittihad Kalba announced the official appointment of ex-Bani Yas boss Jorge Da Silva to cap off a weekend in which the third coach, Al Jazira’s Jurgen Streppel, was dismissed in less than a month of Arabian Gulf League-action.
Da Silva, 57, inked a one-year deal on Saturday to replace Italy’s Fabio Viviani whose second spell in charge was terminated on September 27 after he accrued a 15-match winless top-flight run. The ex-Uruguay striker won the 2014/15 Saudi Professional League crown with Al Nassr, but this posting immediately followed an ignominious eight-month stint in the UAE with the Sky Blues.
Elsewhere on Friday, the impatient Pride of Abu Dhabi confirmed the long-expected news that they’d fired Streppel, who won only one of his three AGL matches at the expected title challengers since his July 1 hiring. A return for Marcel Keizer – ditched by Sporting Lisbon last month – is mooted.
Fellow Dutchman Maurice Steijn, 45, is expected to be imminently ditched by Al Wahda and potentially replaced by Braga’s Ricardo Sa Pinto, but Al Wahda were yet to issue any official confirmation by Saturday evening. This cull has also contained Al Nasr’s choice to terminate Caio Zanardi on September 28.
Da Silva will be expected to utilise all the experience accrued in a 12-year senior managerial career and correct Kalba’s slide towards relegation.
The ex-Atletico Madrid and Uruguay striker – whose last job lasted from December 2018-April 2019 in his homeland with Defensor – takes over the only pointless outfit in the AGL after three rounds. They do, however, boast Hungary winger Balazs Dzsudzsak and prolific Togo striker Peniel Mlapa within their ranks.
In the capital, Streppel fell victim to raised expectations.
Jazira spent lavishly in the summer on the likes of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Amoory and – now-injured – Pyramids FC loanee Keno.
Insatiable record-breaker Ali Mabkhout has insisted a hat-trick against Indonesia to become the UAE’s all-time top scorer “will not be enough for me”, with the chase for World Cup 2022 qualification only just beginning.
Mabkhout, 29, came alive in the second half after Al Wahda midfielder Khalil Ibrahim had forced a 41st-minute opener at Dubai’s Al Maktoum Stadium in Thursday’s 5-0 thrashing of Indonesia.
A chipped finish, unflinching penalty and deft one-on-one – added to in injury time by substitute Tariq Ahmed’s rebound – ensured two wins from two second-round clashes. This also moved the 29-year-old onto a landmark 54 goals from 81 caps – beating the iconic Adnan Al Talyani’s tally of 52 in 161.
“I’m so proud, I’m so happy and I will continue to score and help my team,” said Al Jazira striker Mabkhout.
“They just told me I am the best one now, but everyone tells me a number. I don’t know exactly what the number is.
“For sure, I cannot tell you how happy or how proud I am, but the big importance is the team won. But this one makes me a better player and encourage to score more and more – it will not be enough for me.”
Mabkhout will be determined to add to a punishing qualifying tally of five goals in two matches when Thailand are faced on Tuesday at Thammasat Stadium.
Meanwhile, coach Bert van Marwijk was happy to see his balancing act come off between winning matches and giving “young players a stage to perform at this level”.
Van Marwijk, 67, kept faith with the same youthful XI that opened their Group G-commitments with an unconvincing 2-1 win at Malaysia. In Dubai this week, youthful Al Jazira centre-backs Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi kept a first clean-sheet and teenage Al Wasl winger Ali Saleh came away with two assists.
“Young players can become better players when they train,” said the World Cup 2010 finalist. “So that is always the doubt of a coach.
“On one side you want to give the young players a stage to perform at this level. On the other side, you also want to win.”
He added: “I think we have almost 50 per cent of a new team, with very young players. This is the second game in the qualification and when I now see the performance of this team, I can be satisfied.
“I think we played a good game. They showed a lot of discipline on the pitch, we didn’t have a yellow card either.
“We had full control of the game, the only thing from the first half was the last pass. We were not stable and secure enough with the through-ball.
“In the second half, it was much better. We scored four goals – I can be satisfied and very happy.”
The refreshed UAE top Group G with six points from two games. First spot guarantees entry to the third round, while the four-best runners-up from the eight pools will also advance.
There is already no hope of Indonesia going any further.
Scotsman Simon McMenemy, 41, oversaw a third loss from three qualifiers, after also being downed by neighbours Malaysia and Thailand. The former assistant coach of English non-League football side Worthing was gracious, once again, in defeat.
He said: “I think we have to tip our cap to a very good team. They are not just a good team, they are a very well conditioned team.
“Such are the difficulties that we face. Similar things have happened for three games in a row.
“It is a difficult situation. But in terms of the effort the players put into the game, every player gave everything he had in the tank – and probably a bit more.
“When you see your players give 100 per cent, you can’t complain. Mistakes do happen, especially when you are tired and fatigued from a long season.”