The UAE are only three games into their, hopefully lengthy, World Cup 2022 qualification adventure, yet they’ve already reached a critical juncture in Thursday’s challenge against Vietnam.
Momentum gained from successive victories at the start of the second round versus Malaysia and Indonesia was emphatically halted during last month’s demoralising 2-1 defeat in Thailand. There is no time to wallow for Bert van Marwijk’s third-placed troops, who cannot countenance another setback at the reigning AFF Suzuki Cup champions.
This recovery, however, has been stiffened by a suspension to six-goal leading marksman Ali Mabkhout of Al Jazira. Here are the main talking points for the impending Group G-clash at Hanoi’s My Dinh National Stadium:
What was more damaging to the UAE; Mabkhout’ 14th-minute yellow card in Thailand or the emerging Ekanit Punya’s winner shortly after half-time?
It is not illogical to argue that the Thais’ dominance on home turf was so stark that a clincher was guaranteed to come at some point, no matter circumstance or source. Mabkhout’s untimely and avoidable ill-discipline now dramatically increases the odds of a – potentially ruinous – second-successive reversal.
The 29-year-old’s importance to his nation cannot be overstated. Especially, in comparison to his paltry replacements.
Mabkhout has netted six of the UAE’s eight goals, to date, in this process. Indeed, only Al Nasr anchorman Tariq Ahmed is present among the contemporary scorers as winger Khalil Ibrahim was curiously ruled out through injury prior to netting for Al Wahda last weekend…
Obvious replacement Ahmed Khalil is without a goal for club and country in 12 matches. Jazira youngster Zayed Al Ameri is yet to win a competitive cap.
Beyond the radical utilisation of Omar Abdulrahman, Khalfan Mubarak, Ali Saleh or Jassem Yaqoub as a false 9, one of the aforementioned pair will lead the line in Hanoi. None of these emergency options will imbue Van Marwijk with confidence.
We are regularly told that football is cyclical.
If so, sides on opposite ends of this sequence are taking to the field this week.
Vietnam are now where the Whites were under the paternal Mahdi Ali in the early part of this decade. The parallels are uncanny.
A ‘Golden Generation’ emerged as champions at 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship and went on to provide the backbone for the UAE’s run to the London 2012 Olympics, victory at the 2014 Gulf Cup plus consecutive semi-final berths at the 2015 and 2019 Asian Cups. But the bedrock of this squad – Abdulrahman, Khalil and Mabkhout – have all now entered their late 20s, while a first genuine test in the 2022 programme was horribly failed in Thailand.
Ha Noi playmaker Nguyen Quang Hai, on-loan Sint-Truiden striker Nguyen Cong Phuong, temporary Heerenveen defender Doan Van Hau and injured Hoang Anh Gia Lai midfielder Luong Xuan Truong midfielder are all aged between 20-24. This talent is being channelled – some would say choked – by South Korean disciplinarian Park Hang-seo, the mastermind of 2018’s first-ever AFC U-23 Championship final appearance and last winter’s AFF success.
Currently, the emergent nation sits one point and one place ahead of the fading force in a potential third-round berth. Will this narrative of usurpation hold, or is there still plenty of fight left?
BERT’S UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
A man of Van Marwijk’s rich experience is not prone to be panicked by one disadvantageous result.
Pictures of the crestfallen World Cup 2010 finalist in Thailand, however, told of the realisation about the task at hand.
Van Marwijk and his assistants, led by ex-Real Madrid defender John Metgod, have been increasingly visible since across Arabian Gulf League matches. Only he can answer whether this is a vestige of the fierce – and fatal – criticisms in Saudi Arabia when he declined to spend ample time there along the path to World Cup 2018 qualification.
His methods certainly haven’t been questioned yet in the Emirates. Patience has been afforded by a public that trusts in the 67-year-old’s record.
A cagey match is likely in Vietnam. Both sides like to counter-attack, while Mabkhout’s absence and the hosts’ four goals in three Group G-fixtures further curtails attacking ambitions.
The UAE also know that Thailand, Malaysia and the Vietnamese are set to come at home next year. Even still, there is a risk of giving themselves far too much to do.
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