Russia dreams far from over despite poor 17 minutes

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The difference in quality between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is paper thin, yet in

terms of grit, resilience and experience the gap might as well be a gaping chasm.

A 3-0 defeat might well look disastrous but, in truth, three moments of genuine class separated the two teams – Fahad Al Muwallad, Nawaf Al Abed and Yehya Al Shehri’s finishes were right out of the top drawer.

It could quite easily have been Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil scoring goals of last night’s ilk. But the one glaring void that exists between the two Gulf rivals is game management and the inability of the UAE to capitalise when in the ascendancy.

This was clearly evident in last Thursday’s nerve-shredding 3-1 triumph against minnows Thailand. Leading 2-0 just after half-time the Whites allowed their opponents back into the game and only Ahmed Khalil’s injury-time strike brought them a barely-deserved three points. It spoke volumes that the War Elephants were thrashed 4-0 by lowly Iraq yesterday.

Last night it was evident too. Abdulaziz Haikal came in for injured Al Jazira defender Mohamed Fawzi – who typified the hosts’ second-half dip in performance last week – at right-back. Haikal fared little better and the last two games serve to highlight how much Mohamed Ahmed is missed.

Haikal was guilty of indecision in the first half when he beat the offside trap but lashed an effort from an impossible angle into the side netting rather than wait for support.

In the second, his error led to the killer second Saudi goal. Naively trying to turn on the halfway line he conceded possession and, seconds later, Nawaf Al Abed curled the ball home to end the contest.

Theoretically, the UAE now possess a squad that can count on big game experience. They have played in Gulf Cups, Olympic Games, Asian Cups and the AFC Champions League with their clubs – yet are not utilising this vital knowledge enough when it really matters in crucial moments such as the last two qualifiers.

Mahdi Ali has a momentous task to lift his players after this defeat but he must keep in mind that all hope is not lost – far from it. Yes, the margin and manner of defeat will cause distress, but this was an impressive performance for 73 minutes.

The UAE’s drought in and against Saudi goes on yet Ali’s side showed plenty of signs of improvement in the face of criticism that they crumble when it comes to competing against their great rivals.

Whatever their previous record both in the Kingdom and against the Green Falcons, the UAE can no longer be accused of lacking the mental fortitude when facing their Gulf neighbours, although playing well for all but 17 minutes is far from adequate.

Their ferocious first-half performance was swashbuckling and bold. Talisman Abdulrahman at the heart of each foray, while centrebacks Mohanad Salem and Ismail Ahmed were totems of strength at the back.

After four games the UAE sit fourth in Group B, four points off Saudi at the top of the table with six games remaining. They have to face their three main rivals again but two of those games – against Japan and Saudi – will be at home.

Ali was keen to stress before this result that qualification would go down to the wire and it is important that he and his players remember that.

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PODCAST: Kosovo's big dreams & UAE's Saudi jinx

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Listen to this week's international-focused podcast.

The road to Russia 2018 is well underway but who will have the opportunity to take the famous trophy from the iron grasp of Vladimir Putin in two years’ time?

Mark Lomas is joined by Sport360’s James Piercy and Matt Jones to discuss. Also on this week’s show:

– Why Kosovo are definitely better than Gibraltar.

– Are Chile suffering a Copa America hangover?
– Is Italy vs Spain destined to be a draw?

– Can UAE finally get the Saudi monkey off their back?
– Who is the oldest Premier League goalkeeper ever?

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

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Asia Angle: Five big WCQ questions

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The third matchday in the final round of Asian qualification for the 2018 World Cup takes place on Thursday.

Here, Sport360 addresses five talking points over the games to come.

CAN UAE BOUNCE BACK?

It has already been a campaign to remember for the Whites. The win in Japan will live long in the memory. Then came the home game against Australia with the Asian champions just a little too clever and composed for the hosts, a narrow 1-0 defeat disappointing but certainly not disastrous for UAE.

The next two games could show what kind of campaign Mahdi Ali’s men are going to have. Six points are up for grabs and the full complement would demonstrate that the UAE can not only bounce back from the occasional bad result but are serious contenders for one of the top two spots.

Thailand have improved in recent years and were unlucky to lose 1-0 in Saudi Arabia in the opening game. Then came a 2-0 defeat at home to Japan in which the Samurai Blue showed their class. Yet, UAE have to take all three points to set themselves up for a trip to Saudi Arabia – that should be something special.

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CAN QATAR STOP SON HEUNG-MIN & KEEP DREAM ALIVE?

When you’re hosting the 2022 World Cup, are desperate to qualify for 2018 but lose the first two games in the final round of qualification, a trip to South Korea is probably the last thing you need.

Throw one of the most in-form players in the world into the mix and Qatar have much to do at Suwon World Cup Stadium.

Son Heung-min had a sensational September for Tottenham Hotspur, scoring for fun. All four goals in the Premier League were memorable and then there was the winner at CSKA Moscow in the Champions League.

Qatar’s poor start, though the results against Iran and Uzbekistan were worse than the performances, spelled the end for Jose Daniel Carreno and brought a second spell for fellow Uruguayan Jorge Fossati.

A third defeat would not necessarily end Qatar’s chances of finishing in the top two and automatic qualification but it would make it incredibly difficult. Korea will start aggressively and have been talking of the importance of scoring first.

Qatar need to keep their composure and hit the Koreans on the counter. The chances will come and the hosts’ defence is vulnerable but the same will be true of Qatar when Son has the ball.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

WILL SAUDI ARABIA SCORE FROM OPEN PLAY?

Saudi Arabia have probably performed worse than Qatar in the first two games yet are six points better off – such is football.

In the opener against Thailand in Riyadh, it took a late and soft penalty to defeat the War Elephants 1-0 when the visitors warranted at least a point.

Five days later, the first half against Iraq in Kuala Lumpur was worse and Bert van Marwijk’s men should have been more than a goal down at the break. Matters improved after the restart but with ten minutes remaining, still they trailed.

Then there were two more penalties, both converted by Nawaf Al Abed, to give the playmaker three goals in two games, all from the spot.

Saudi Arabia have struggled against Thailand and Iraq but now comes a much tougher test. Australia will be in Jeddah and looking to win. The Socceroos have impressed so far, especially in the recent 1-0 win against UAE in Abu Dhabi.

It may be better to be lucky than good but if there is to be a third win in three games, then Saudi Arabia will need to be both.

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ARE IRAN CAPABLE OF ENDING UZBEKISTAN’S PERFECT START?

Uzbekistan sit on top of Group A with six points from the first two games. The White Wolves don’t get that much attention but have been going about their business nice and quietly with wins over Syria at home and then a fine three points in Qatar.

The Central Asians have come close to the global stage before but often struggle to beat the big teams in the big games. And in Asia, it doesn’t get much bigger than Iran. If Uzbekistan win this then the road to Russia will be lying wide open.

Team Melli and coach Carlos Queiroz can be tricky customers. At the very least, they are tough to beat; Iran are both happy to sit back and soak up the pressure or to inflict serious pressure themselves.

If Iran lose in Tashkent then they will be five points behind Uzbekistan after just three games. Can Uzbekistan handle the pressure?

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CAN IRAQ AND SYRIA BREAK THEIR DUCK?

Iraq are one of three nations in the two groups yet to get a point on the board. Losing in Australia in the opening game was no surprise or disgrace.

To lose 2-1 to Saudi Arabia was a bit harder to take, especially as the 2007 Asian Cup winners had been the better side for much of the match but were undone by two late penalties.

It is hard to see Iraq getting anything in Japan but things have to improve soon.

Syria are also unable to play at home for security reasons and will be happy after taking a point of South Korea in the last game. A trip to China will not be easy but Syria are capable of getting something in Xian.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

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