Bert van Marwijk experienced a first taste of defeat as UAE boss when his side failed to keep up with vibrant Thailand in Tuesday’s World Cup 2022 qualifier.
Torrential rains which had flooded parts of the host country in the build-up, mercifully, stayed away. But the Dutchman’s 100-per-cent start could not weather an onslaught at Thammasat Stadium, where all-time-leading-marksman Ali Mabkhout’s sixth goal in three second-round clashes on the stroke of half-time was sandwiched by Teerasil Dangda’s and Ekanit Panya’s finishes in either half.
Here are the talking points from the damaging 2-1 defeat in Group G:
An unavoidable bump in the road, or worrying signs of insurmountable weaknesses?
These are the scenarios Van Marwijk and his UAE Football Association paymasters will ponder until November 14’s pivotal trip to AFF Suzuki Cup holders Vietnam.
This was the first genuine test of Van Marwijk’s vision. He, and his limp team, did not pass it against opponents whom they’ve registered 1-1 draws in the two prior meetings.
Thailand possessed greater energy and – worryingly – quality. They claimed 61 per cent of possession, while firing in 11 attempts to the Whites’ six.
The 2016 AFC Player of Player Omar Abdulrahman was inconsequential upon his return to the XI for the first time since last October’s crippling knee injury. This personal struggle ensured the depleted Thais did not unduly miss injured J1 League exports Chanathip Songkrasin and Thitiphan Puangchan.
Mabkhout’s unmarked header after outstanding wing play by reinstated Sharjah left-back Al Hassan Saleh was the only chance of note, before 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil’s cameo witnessed a shot which fizzed across the goal-line and a wayward 94th-minute attempt from close range. This lack of threat was reminiscent of the dark days under banal predecessor Alberto Zaccheroni.
In contrast, unsettled Jazira centre-back Mohammed Al Attas cleared a cross onto his own post. Muangthong United veteran forward Dangda miscued when well placed on five minutes and also rattled the crossbar with a powerful header.
These were just the highlights for dominant Thailand.
The Whites had led the section after – expected – victories in Malaysia and versus Indonesia. They now sit third, in a race whereby only first place guarantees progression and sustains belief in a first finals appearance since 1990.
All is not lost with five fixtures left. Not even close.
But searching questions must be asked about the direction of Van Marwijk’s extensive generational shift.
RISK, OR REWARD?
The exemplification of the 67-year-old’s vision is found at the heart of the UAE’s coltish defence.
Laudable faith has been shown in youthful Pride of Abu Dhabi pair Khalifa Al Hammadi and Al Attas. After another unconvincing away defensive performance to follow last month’s Malaysia opener, however, has this bold approach reached a juncture point, or will this investment in opportunity reach fruition – if everything goes to plan, of course – during the third round?
Naive Al Attas, 22, was constantly on the wrong side of Dangda for the headed opener from Panya’s looped cross on 26 minutes. Zero communication between Al Hammadi, 20, and Al Wahda right-back Mohammed Al Menhali then granted the unmarked Panya freedom to pick his spot at the near post – admittedly through a suspect Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa – for the critical second.
This situation is also not aided by unmovable Serbia international Milos Kosanovic at club level, which means they rarely line-up alongside each other.
There are other options to explore. Al Wahda’s Hamdan Al Kamali is a 30-year-old veteran of the ‘Golden Generation’ selected for the London 2012 Olympics, Mohammed Ali Shaker represents the future of Al Ain’s rearguard and Sharjah captain Shaheen Abdulrahman – a late call-up this month – is an inspiration for the Arabian Gulf League champions.
Next month provides a taxing visit to rising Vietnam. Will Van Marwijk’s faith endure?
THAIMED TO PERFECTION
Promise could only take Thailand’s brightest-ever batch of players so far in the previous cycle.
A punishing third round featured no wins and 24 goals conceded from 10 fixtures. There was also then the embarrassing misstep at January’s Asian Cup, where the unpopular Milovan Rajevac was sacked after one game on the way to an unfulfilling round-of-16 exit.
But July’s sagacious appointment of Japan’s World Cup 2018 supremo Akira Nishino has broadened horizons.
The 64-year-old’s 4-2-3-1 formation worked far better than his opposite number’s from the Netherlands on Tuesday evening. Chasms between lone striker Ali Mabkhout and centre-backs Al Hammadi and Al Attas were not present in the joined-up home ranks.
The War Elephants all marched to the same beat, while the disjointed Whites played like they were at a silent disco.
Nishino will have been further buoyed by an enviable strength in depth. Their 21-year-old stand-in playmaker Supachok Sarachart was untouchable and made none of the home support yearn for the exalted Songkrasin, while 19-year-old Panya was both provider and scorer.
The only sore point was makeshift centre-back Tanaboon Kesarat’s and Yokohama Marinos left-back Theerathon Bunmathan’s bewildering failure to pick up Mabkhout for the leveller.
In the race for Group G’s top spot, the Thais have gained a foothold with this triumph and last month’s goalless draw with Vietnam. These games were both at home, they must now exhibit similar acumen on the road in 2020.
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