Bert van Marwijk was right to pinpoint the need for perspective.
Granted, the UAE had been held to a disheartening goalless draw at home to Lebanon, their final-round bid to reach next year’s World Cup suffering an immediate setback, but it need not be overly damaging.
This was Match Day 1 of 10, Van Marwijk reminded, as he is surely wont to do; the UAE had nine more fixtures to contest on this narrowing road to Qatar 2022.
Still, the frustration was clear. Thursday’s Group A opener pitted the national team against the lowest-ranked side in the pool – Lebanon sit 98th in the Fifa ladder, the UAE 30 places higher – and, playing out at home in Dubai, represented the perfect opportunity to begin the campaign with a win.
Yet chances were created and cast aside. Record goalscorer Ali Mabkhout was uncharacteristically wayward, first missing the target completely when through on goal, then striking the post from an-albeit unkind angle. Right at the end of the first half, Caio Canedo failed to convert Bandar Al Ahbabi’s brilliant centre. The UAE had dominated, but to their credit, Lebanon were sufficiently dogged to eke out a point on foreign turf.
Afterwards, Van Marwijk highlighted injury issues involving some of his key players: Ali Salmeen and Fabio De Lima had concerns coming into the match and thus their training was limited, while Abdullah Ramadan was ready only for 20 minutes off the bench. A muscle problem had inhibited one of the real stars of June’s second-round finale.
De Lima, another who shone during those triumphant four matches, did seem out of sorts, despite him supplying Mabkhout for his two most straightforward chances. Earlier this summer, right from his competitive debut, the Brazil-born forward excelled, scoring five times to help the UAE roll on to Round 3 as group winners.
On Thursday, though, neither De Lima nor the national team did quite enough. More incision was required, particularly during a lacklustre second half, some invention needed as Lebanon performed as laudably obdurate opponents.
Understandably, Van Marwijk lamented two points dropped. It therefore makes Tuesday’s qualifier against Syria all the more important. Like the UAE, the West Asians did not start as they wished, although their 1-0 defeat on Thursday came at the hands of group favourites Iran, in Tehran.
UAE v Lebanon
Even without lead striker Omar Al Somah – the frontman missed the opener through injury and has not yet been declared fit for Tuesday – Syria should constitute a step up in challenge again.
For that, the UAE will hope Ramadan returns to provide the guile in midfield, with more required also from Caio, De Lima and Mabkhout. After Lebanon, victory in Jordan, where Syria have to play this "home" encounter, feels necessary. Four points from the initial two matches would mark a decent return, restoring dented confidence and setting up the UAE for next month’s mammoth double-header at home to Iran and Iraq.
A little ground has been lost, the glow of June's near-flawless run diminishing somewhat. Of course, as Van Marwijk affirmed, there remains plenty to play for, as teams chase the two direct spots to Qatar, or have to settle for third and a backdoor route via the play-offs.
Thursday's struggle, however, means Tuesday had attached even greater significance.