Out of nowhere, the UAE breathed life back into their faltering World Cup campaign.
Disjointed and growing ever-more-desperate for points, they were handed a colossal reprieve against Lebanon in Sidon. With time running down and the national team seemingly running out of ideas, substitute Sebastian Tagliabue won a penalty and strike partner Ali Mabkhout kept his cool from the spot.
Bert van Marwijk’s makeshift side, lethargic and largely lacklustre, somehow prevailed. A 1-0 win gifted a first victory this campaign and with it three precious points, in the process leapfrogging Lebanon into third spot in Group A.
With four matches of this fraying final round remaining, and with automatic qualification most probably already beyond them, the UAE prodded themselves into the play-off slot. Suddenly, they have something to build on.
Oh, how this could prove a turning point. For sure, and irrespective of the morale-boosting triumph, a vast improvement will be required. For the majority of the match at Saida Municipal Stadium, the visitors struggled to gain a foothold, maybe burdened by an apparently dissolving dream, perhaps blocked by the patchy pitch, most definitely bound by a lengthy injury list. On Tuesday, they were without at least five first-team regulars.
Still, the UAE were incredibly fortunate to come through. But come through they did. In the 83rd minute, Tagliabue dipped down to meet a Khalil Ibrahim cross, Lebanon defender Abbas Asi thrust up his foot and the referee judged it dangerous play.
After a tense pause for word from the Video Assistant Referee, the decision stood. Mabkhout — who has been off-form throughout the final round — stood tall, sending home goalkeeper Mostafa Matar the wrong way. Then the UAE held on for the existing minutes, sometimes riding their luck, often hacking clear or throwing bodies in the way. They rebutted a late Lebanon siege to secure fresh hope.
The hosts, robbed last week of a famous victory against group leaders Iran, will derive scant comfort from the fact they had created the better chances. In the first half, Mohamad Kdouh slashed wildly at two opportunities, one from a tight angle and the other from distance. Admittedly, neither remotely troubled Ali Khaseif in the UAE goal.
The UAE captain would, though, be grateful to Bandar Al Ahbabi, who slid in to repel Soony Saad midway through the first half, and Ali Salmeen, who lashed away a certain goal after Khaseif had tipped a Saad free-kick on to his crossbar, not long from half-time.
Moments into the second period, Al Ahbabi chested the ball from his goalline when a Lebanon corner evaded everyone else, with Kassem El Zein unable to head home the rebound. The defender was two yards out. In truth, the ball had arrived at him too quickly, from too short a distance. At the other end, Mabkhout sent his own header off target, although he was well beyond the near post when meeting Al Ahbabi’s centre.
By now, Van Marwijk had sent on Ibrahim and introduced Tagliabue. Then, as the clock whittled towards its conclusion, they combined to create the clash's decisive moment. Mabkhout stroked home, the UAE’s all-time leading scorer finally coming to the fore.
The relief, after the goal and then upon the termination of the five frantic minutes of injury-time, was palpable. Van Marwijk and staff hugged and high-fived on the sidelines. Their players embraced one another in joy.
It was not pretty — not by a stretch — but the UAE got the job done. After the six qualifiers since September, now they sit tight until the end of January, albeit with the inaugural Fifa Arab Cup, a test-run in Qatar for the global finals, wedged between.
The wish will be that by the resumption of World Cup qualification, the UAE will have mended the broken bodies, that they have reset and recharged. Fabio De Lima might be available; Shaheen Abdulrahman, Walid Abbas, Mahmoud Khamis, Majed Hassan and Abdullah Hamad, too. Omar Abdulrahman, coming back to fitness, could even be back; Ahmed Khalil also. What a boost they would be.
A lucky win in Lebanon may prove the spark. Out of the blue, World Cup 2022 has come back into view.