Edgardo Bauza’s tenure opened with the UAE’s World Cup window closing that little bit more.
It was not how it was supposed to be against Thailand on Tuesday night in Bangkok, a hugely damaging night at the rigid Rajamangala Stadium, when Ali Mabkhout’s late, late equaliser offered scant comfort.
One point from a possible three was some way short of what was needed. Against Group B’s bottom side and with three teams perched above them and almost disappearing in the distance, the UAE had hoped for more, but it was not to be. With only two fixtures remaining and six points the gap, Russia 2018 fell farther away than ever.
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Realistically, there was not much Bauza could do. The Argentine was confirmed as Mahdi Ali’s successor only last month, given less than five weeks to rescue a faltering bid, to lift this UAE to emulate that UAE of 1990, the country’s only World Cup appearance in its still-short history.
Brief would describe Bauza’s incumbency thus far. Taking charge of a new team for a first competitive match, learning about a new culture and understandably yet to master a new language, he recognised that time was tight and preparations far from perfect.
Against Thailand, Bauza stood on the edge of his technical area throughout as the UAE stood on the edge of another unsuccessful campaign. Dressed all in charcoal grey, he constantly cajoled his players, encouraged wherever he could, instructed whomever was not sticking to the pre-match plan or the 4-4-1-1 formation.
With Ali Mabkhout at its tip and Omar Abdulrahman given license to roam behind, Bauza appeared to provide the UAE as good a chance as possible to prosper. That decision was verified not long into the initially suffocating Thai evening, when Abdulrahman scooped a delicious through-ball to Mabkhout on 18 minutes.
The Al Jazira striker, so ruthless in his club’s Arabian Gulf League title-winning side last season, directed his header over the crossbar. He really should have done better. Even more so, since Mabkhout has an earlier sight at goal, but failed to connect properly with Abdulaziz Sanqour’s low cross.
If the UAE had started well, eager to impress the new man at the helm and keep alive their mission to Moscow, they soon found themselves fortunate not to concede. Twice in the matter of minutes, Thailand went close, first when Mahmoud Khamis hacked Adisak Kraisorn’s header off the UAE line. Moments later, Siroch Chatthong headed over when unmarked at the visitors’ back post.
The UAE tired visibly after the break, as Thailand grew in confidence and the 24,000-plus home crowd cheered and shrieked and urged their side on. They were rewarded with 21 minutes left on the clock, once Peerapat Notchaiya broke down the UAE’s right, sent a low cross that evaded Hamdan Al Kamali and Majed Naser and allowed Mongkol Tossakrai to bundle home.
Lamenting his luck, Bauza sent on Ismail Matar, a veteran forward to salvage a manager’s nascent assignment. That was left for Mabkhout, though, who with time nearly up, this time kept his cool. As the seconds wound down and the UAE’s World Cup dream was evaporating once more, the frontman raced into Matar’s knock-down and slotted past Kawin Thamsatchanan in the Thailand goal.
The UAE had a point; Bauza spared an opening defeat. Predictably, the celebrations on the touchline were mooted, for two points were dropped and that World Cup window close to slamming shut.
Ultimately, Bauza’s debut had ended in disappointment. “Sad” was how he described it afterwards. But that did not seem to convey truly the anguish.
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