Coming so soon after their June pomp, the UAE arrive at the final stage of qualification for the next World Cup full of optimism.
Bert van Marwijk’s men came through their early summer assignment, negotiating commendably a fraught four-games-in-13-days errand, even if it did play out in its entirety in Dubai. To their credit, they withstood the stresses and the strains of expectation, the need for an almost-flawless run, to turn around their campaign.
The UAE gleaned maximum points, attacked with fervour and defended, for the most part, expertly. A distinct pattern of play emerged, clear to see and pleasing on the eye. In the end, they progressed to the third and final round for Qatar 2022 as group winners.
And so to another lengthy labour on the road to what the national team hope will be a second appearance at a global finals. Drawn in Group A alongside Iran, South Korea, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, the UAE have 10 matches to secure a top-two slot that guarantees a World Cup place. Third could be enough, although it sets about a series of play-offs to clinch a berth at next year’s tournament. At present, it appears the most plausible route.
Whatever transpires, the next six months are certain to test Van Marwijk’s improving side. For it should not be underestimated: this phase marks a significant step up in challenge.
In Iran, the UAE take on the side ranked, until relatively recently, often as Asia’s No 1. They are perennial World Cup participants, boasting some of the finest talent on the continent, particularly in attack. The appointment as manager of Dragan Skocic, a resident in the country for some time and thus cognisant of the footballing culture and the requirement to qualify, seems astute.
South Korea, meanwhile, constitute the other obvious favourite for a direct spot, even if the regular World Cup entrants have yet to truly translate to the national team Son Heung-min’s form with Tottenham Hotspur. Manager Paulo Bento, too, has not convinced fully.
The task, then, to usurp one of those two countries is far from straightforward. For the UAE, they will have to improve greatly their away form: in Round 2, they were fortunate to triumph in Malaysia before losing in Thailand and Vietnam, although they did deserve more from Hanoi.
Some solace, though, can be taken from the fact that the UAE were at the beginning of Van Marwijk’s tenure and therefore in a period of decided transition. The progress since, taking place amid the pandemic, has been marked. Still, sterner tests await.
At this stage in World Cup 2018 qualification, the UAE failed to build on an historic opening victory in Japan, afterwards losing away to Saudi Arabia, Australia and Iraq. They drew with Thailand in Bangkok.
It should help, now, that three of their opening four fixtures will be staged in Dubai, at the same Zabeel Stadium that provided the setting for their summer success. The only jaunt from home, which follows Lebanon on Thursday and comes against Syria next week, falls at a neutral venue in Jordan.
Blatantly, the UAE must make the most of a favourable start. Maximum points are required against Lebanon – the lowest-ranked team in the group, still they held South Korea to a draw in Round 2 - and a positive result achieved in Amman. Then come Iran and Iraq in October, five days apart.
Van Marwijk’s input, of course, will be pivotal. Crucially, the Dutchman knows what it takes: in 2018, he guided Saudi Arabia memorably to automatic qualification, at Australia’s initial expense.
Admittedly, the Asian football landscape has changed, distorted further by the uncertainty of the pandemic. As Van Marwijk highlighted this week, at this stage and with the World Cup coming into view, “nothing will be easy. Never”.
A burst from the blocks would make that quest feel altogether more attainable. The UAE are buoyant and full of belief, energised by their June spree, still fresh in the mind. Yet refocus is undoubtedly required.
Reaching World Cup 2022, seemingly close but in truth far from now, demands substantially greater effort.