It’s finally official. The UAE have not made World Cup 2018.
An outcome which supporters grew increasingly used to during a fitful quest to gain a second-ever qualification became reality on Tuesday, Iraq inflicting a 1-0 defeat on a depleted side at Amman International Stadium.
The Whites had headed to Jordan as the third-and-final round wound to a close in the knowledge advancement was a long shot, at best. Mission improbable became mission impossible the moment hulking striker Ayman Hussein charged unopposed in the first half to head home what would be the only goal.
Second best throughout to a side long eliminated from Group B, this was the sorry end for nearly a decade’s worth of startling progress for the ‘Golden Generation’. Last week’s rousing victory against Saudi Arabia can now only be remembered as a false dawn.
With Edgardo Bauza’s troops missing so many of their glittering stars – chiefly 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman and 2015 Asian Cup leading marksman Ali Mabkhout – they never stood a chance of producing the heavy victory which would have pressurised the third-placed Saudis in the day’s late game against qualified Japan.
The Road to Russia had appeared the natural culmination of consistent success. From winning the 2008 AFC U-19 Championship, to performing at the London 2012 Olympics, winning the 2013 Gulf Cup and claiming a startling third Down Under two years ago.
But this development had swiftly ground to a halt through the long process to make next summer’s tournament. Paternal coach Mahdi Ali lasted until March despite handing in his resignation at the end of last year, the damage done long before Bauza’s succession in May.
The 2019 Asian Cup on home soil provides some recompense. However, it is not nearly enough when genuine promise fails to reach historic fruition.
Spain produced a masterclass to beat Italy and take charge of their World Cup 2018 qualifying group on Saturday, emphatically stating their case as one of the tournament’s favourites.
It was one of the best performances La Roja have produced since winning Euro 2012 – which ultimately marked the end of a golden era that saw them win an unprecedented three major tournaments in a row.
Can this current crop hope to emulate and even better their predecessors once they reach their potential?
Below, our two writers have their say.
Do you agree with their verdicts?
I am not predicting that this Spain side will sweep all before them in the coming years – the razor-thin margins of error in tournament football makes that incredibly unlikely.
But nostalgia tends to sweeten memories and the team that won an unprecedented three major tournament victories in a row were by no means perfect.
Spain had a long-held reputation of flattering to deceive as generation after generation failed to turn up on the big stage – believe it or not they had more in common with England once upon a time – before settling on a successful formula.
They probed but rarely punished, controlled but only on occasion caused chaos. The modus operandi was death by a thousand cuts; their 4-0 thumping of Italy in the Euro 2012 final was an outlier rather than the norm.
But with all that patient passing came a certain tactical inflexibility, an inability to find an extra gear. If the opposition were going to succumb they would do so through Spain’s one-pace persistence and there was nothing they, or indeed La Roja, could do about it.
In contrast, the new generation has the potential to not only reach the peak of the game but be the kind of entertainers that their predecessors never were.
This team’s attack is based on the electricity of Real Madrid rather than the elegance of Barcelona, with Isco and Marco Asensio at the helm.
Isco is showing a goal threat that Andres Iniesta, who he shares many traits with, never looked like reaching. Paired with the acceleration of Asensio – who is not shy of a shot either – and a dynamism in attacking areas now co-exists with the usual crispness you’d expect from a Spain side.
Alvaro Morata did not start in Saturday’s win over Italy but any suspicion over his quality is being eroded. At 24 David Villa had only just made his Spain debut; by the same age Morata has found the net 10 times.
Together they can get backsides off seats in a way that the vintage never did – and win just like them.
Spain’s performance in Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Italy was mightily impressive, and Julen Lopetegui’s team certainly should be among the leading candidates for the World Cup.
But it is far too early to even begin to entertain the notion that they could become anywhere near as good as the Spanish team which lifted three consecutive trophies between 2008 and 2012.
For starters, we should not forget it’s little more than a year since Spain – containing many of the players in the current squad – crashed out of Euro 2016 in the last 16 against Italy, also losing against Croatia in the group stage.
Since then, Lopetegui has done well to reinvigorate a team which had grown stale under Vicente Del Bosque, and the ongoing improvement of new stars Isco and Marco Asensio suggests they can get better yet. However, many questions remain unanswered and it would be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one convincing home victory over a transitional Italy team.
In particular, there are doubts in the goalscoring department. Spain won’t always be able to rely upon Isco to score twice, and the lack of a proven world-class frontman is a serious flaw – one which even forced Lopetegui to field David Silva as a ‘false nine’ for probably the first time in his career.
Recalling David Villa into the squad for this week’s games was a popular decision, but that Lopetegui resorted to picking a 35-year-old who has spent the last three years playing in the weak MLS is also a stark illustration of just how limited the coach’s options are.
Ahead of Villa in the pecking order, Alvaro Morata is still ‘potential’ rather than ‘proven’, and desperately needs a strong season with Chelsea to arrive in Russia as a genuinely top-class striker to be feared by the world’s best.
Diego Costa could also play that role if he ever gets fit again, but the current squad has nothing like the quality of Villa and Fernando Torres at their prime. And for that reason alone they cannot be compared to the all-conquering 2008-12 team.
In March, Cristiano Ronaldo was in his hometown island Madeira for the official unveiling of the new ‘Aeroporto Cristiano Ronaldo’.
At the event a gold-plated statue of the Real Madrid star was unveiled as well which did the rounds on social media with several bashing its comical appearance.
Now, the Portuguese’s constant Ballon d’Or rival Lionel Messi has a statue of his own. Only his is life-sized and has been propped up, presumably without his knowledge, in a pub in Russia.
The establishment is located in St Petersburg and has become something of a minor tourist attraction.
The video below shows footage of the statue.