They may have scraped into the last 16, but the UAE’s path to the later stages of the 2018 Asian Games appears fairly clear.
Maciej Skorza’s men take on hosts Indonesia in Cikarang on Friday, knowing that a place in the semi-finals is realistically theirs for the taking.
Though the teams competing are the Under-23 group, the senior UAE and Indonesia sides are poles apart in terms of the FIFA rankings.
The south-east Asian minnows are ranked 164th in the world – 87 places behind the UAE.
Negotiate their way past the co-hosts and the UAE’s task could be even easier with a quarter-final tie against either North Korea or Bangladesh awaiting them.
The Koreans are ranked just outside the top 100 (108th) but Bangladesh are 194th in the world – the rankings only go down to 206th.
Also in the Junior Whites’ favour is that two forgetful games to open the tournament – Skora’s side lost 1-0 to Syria before trouncing hapless Timor-Leste 4-1 – was followed by a stirring 2-1 defeat to rampant Group C winners China on Sunday.
The Junior Whites had gained a deserved lead on Sunday through Fujairah winger Mohammed Khalfan’s snapped low finish against qualified opponents, who came into the clash with a goal difference of +9.
Beijing Guoan left winger Wei Shihao cut inside onto his favoured right boot and arrowed a powerful effort past Mohamed Al Shamsi to equalise.
Shandong Luneng midfielder Yao Junsheng then looked up from near the halfway line on 71 minutes and powerfully lobbed Al Wahda goalkeeper Al Shamsi to seal a come-from-behind victory.
Despite a second defeat in two games, the UAE snuck in to the last 16 as one of the four best third-place finishers. If they can win their next two games, the last four is where things will start to get tricky.
Make the semis and one of Asia’s heavyweights will greet them, with China taking on Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and Japan facing Malaysia on the UAE’s side of the draw.
The UAE take on Indonesia at 13:00 UAE time on Friday.
The numbers make sorry reading for miserly UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni.
Saturday’s worrisome draw against minnows Andorra featured zero goals. It came against opponents ranked 130th in the world by FIFA, 56 places below the UAE.
This was the listless culmination of an 18-day training camp in the undulating Austrian countryside. A period in which fissures were opened up in the relationships with two of the nation’s biggest sides, Al Ain and Al Jazira, both angered by limited preparatory time for Arab Club Champions Cup ties.
In the 10 months of Zaccheroni’s cheerless reign, his record in internationals reads; four wins, four draws and four defeats. The Whites have become a boon to insomniacs throughout this period, scoring just four goals and conceding five.
Their run to consequential defeat in the winter’s Gulf Cup contained one strike in normal time.
Striker Ali Mabkhout got it from the penalty spot in the group-stage opener against Oman. For comparison, he top scored in 2014’s previous edition with five goals under Mahdi Ali.
Mabkhout is one of the UAE’s three totems, alongside now Al Hilal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil. The first two mentioned broke curfew – along with now-discarded right-back Mohammed Fawzi – before the Gulf Cup final defeat to Oman and have played zero UAE internationals since.
Even though March’s exile for the Thailand’s King’s Cup ended this summer, neither were present for Sunday’s depressing stalemate at Grodig’s sun-drenched DAS.GOLDBERG Stadion.
Mabkhout is back in Abu Dhabi with Al Jazira after a 2-1 loss to Riyadh’s Al Nassr in last week’s ACCC’s opener. Abdulrahman had the small matter of making a winning debut for new paymasters in Saturday’s Saudi Super Cup clash against Al Ittihad at London’s Loftus Road.
Any Asian nation missing such premium talents will struggle. Even against Andorra.
Where insight could be found in the dour, aged methods of Zaccheroni came in the make-up of the starting XI selected.
The Italian could not help himself and chose eight defensively-minded players at kick-off. Only Khalil and fellow Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club star Ismail Al Hammadi could be classified as out-and-out attackers.
The digits to cause real concern are: 140. This is the number of days left over until the bumbling UAE kick-off the continental festivities against Bahrain on January 5.
Frankly, preparations could hardly be going any worse.
It’s seven years since Zaccheroni won the Asian Cup with Japan and 19 years since his defining Serie A success with AC Milan. Temptation must be building within the UAE Football Association to make it four different coaches since the beginning of March 2017.
After his controversial exit from Al Ain, where he had been for 12 years, Crescent fans got their first sight of the frizzy-haired magician at Loftus Road on Saturday.
Hilal took a 2-0 lead through Brazilian playmaker Carlos Eduardo and Venezuela striker Gelmin Rivas, before Morocco midfielder Karim El Ahmadi’s deflected strike made a game of it.
Here, we analyse the performance of the man known simply as Amoory.
There would have been huge clamour to get a first glimpse of Abdulrahman back in the famous blue of the Crescent, but Al Hilal fans shouldn’t expect too much from a player who’s hardly participated in pre-season.
He was on the periphery largely in London, but did play a surprisingly physical part in his side’s killer second goal. Another pass that almost led to a goal was a small sign of what can be expected this season.
Flashes of class – There was one moment in the first half where Amoory advanced with the ball and sliced an audacious pass with the outside of the left boot through to Saudi Arabia international Salem Al Dawsari. It was Amoory personified, but Assaf Al Qarni was out quickly to prevent a goal. It was a rare flash but an insight into just what Hilal have on their hands.
Doing too much – This was his first action of note this summer so we mustn’t be too critical, but whereas UAE football fans are used to seeing passes threaded through the eye of the needle and the ball depart off Amoory’s boot with laser-beam precision, most of his attempts in London were very wayward.
Not a 9 – Abdulrahman is many things; sublime footballer, team leader, exquisite passer and owner of an impressive hair-do. A bustling, commanding No9 striker – not so much. The false-nine position is popular in football today, but here he looked isolated while his supreme talent was wasted.
16m – Abdulrahman’s first contribution of note is to get in the way of a fierce Thiago Carleto free-kick.
21m – Receives the ball and a neat touch takes him away from a defender but another black and yellow shirt clears.
26m – Another neat bit of skill on the touchline sees him skip away from a marker and bend a pass into midfield for a team-mate.
33m – Hilal should really be ahead and it was Amoory who sparked it. A quite audacious outside of the foot pass sets Al Dawsari racing away, Ittihad stopper Al Qarni is out to thwart him. Hilal try to rescue the situation but Abdullah Otayf’s final effort is fired high and wide.
38m – Tries to set up a chance but his ball into the box is a little aimless and Ittihad clear easily.
58m – Impish backheel looks simple but a classy touch helps to sustain Hilal attack.
61m – Amoory plays a part in Hilal’s killer second, tenaciously winning the ball back as Ittihad dally in clearing. The ball squeezes through to Eduardo who frees Rivas and he rounds the keeper calmly before slotting home.
75m – The playmaker is subbed off, to a rapturous reception
A far from spectacular outing at Loftus Road, but there’s no doubt that Amoory will soon settle into his new (old) home of Riyadh. He showed glimpses of his mercurial talent here and while he can and will play a lot better, superior team-mates in new surroundings should allow him to effect more influence on the bigger stage of Asia.