Fortune finally deserted the UAE against Japan on Thursday night, its absence leaving hopes of making a second-ever World Cup increasingly parlous.
Ambitions of securing a third win in a row against Asian royalty by the ‘Golden Generation’ were first rocked before kick-off as it became apparent 15-goal qualifying top scorer Ahmed Khalil – the hero from the victorious previous meeting in Saitama – had failed a fitness test on a calf strain.
Gent forward Yuya Kubo’s early opener and Gamba Osaka anchorman Yasuyuki Konno’s toe poke soon after the interval then effectively terminated all dreams of another landmark result.
With 46 shots conceded to just eight registered in the previous slender wins during September’s reverse fixture and the 2015 Asian Cup’s quarter-finals, this 2-0 defeat had been coming.
Yet the amateurish defending on show and the peripheral performance of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman at his Hazza bin Zayed Stadium has ensured three points must, somehow, be harvested at continental champions and perennial participants Australia on Tuesday to stay in the mix from the final round of qualifying for Russia 2018. Fail to do so and ascent into the qualification spots from fourth will look almost impossible.
UAE hopes were left shaken even before kick-off, as Khalil’s absence and the curious solution chosen to tackle the problem was revealed. The following result will have only added to the engulfing pressure placed on embattled UAE boss Mahdi Ali from a campaign bedeviled by questions about his future.
In came 33-year-old, 114-cap veteran forward Ismail Matar. Not exactly like for like, even though the dogmatic adherence to the 4-4-2 formation remained.
Japan’s imposing XI boasted eight Europe-based stars. Konno was the stand-in for injured skipper Makoto Hasebe and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida donned the armband.
A strange lack of urgency was apparent from the hosts, in a fixture which required a positive result. The 1-1 draw registered by the Socceroos against Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s 3-0 dismantling of Thailand only increased the pressure not to become marooned in Group B.
But the Whites went behind on 13 minutes, from a goal which owed equally to incisive attacking and rancid defending.
Borussia Dortmund schemer Shinji Kagawa – who expertly orchestrated throughout – and Marseille’s Gotoku Sakai swiftly advanced up the pitch. The right-back’s pass played Kubo into a pocket of space Al Ahli left-back Abdulaziz Sanqour should not have vacated, an instant shot creeping past Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa at his near post to open his international account at the third time of asking.
An instant retort should have followed from Al Jazira centre forward Ali Mabkhout. But the meek low shot produced by him was reminiscent of the man with just five 2018 qualifying goals, rather than a colossal 26 strikes in the current Arabian Gulf League.
The Samurai Blue’s experience as five-time successive entrants saw them further choke a match in which ‘Amoory’ struggled. The yellow card on his home ground earned booting Metz shot stopper Eiji Kawashima spoke of his frustration.
Ali’s troops were, temporarily, less moribund after the interval. Flyer Ismail Al Hammadi’s air shot from an inviting Sanqour cross should have produced the leveler.
This was mistake was to be instantly punished. Another Ahli full-back critically erred, Abdulaziz Haikal egregiously misjudging the flight of a harmless Kubo cross to let Konno poke in the second.
Fight then deserted the UAE as shots peppered Essa’s goal without reward.
They will need to rediscover their vigour to stand any chance of shocking the Socceroos in Sydney and injecting life into an ailing campaign.