So soon after one World Cup challenge was expertly put to bed, the UAE relinquished some momentum right at the offset in the next.
Aiming to build upon their four wins from four qualifiers earlier this summer, Bert van Marwijk’s men failed to open their final-round account with a fifth victory on the trot.
They were held to a goalless draw by Lebanon at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai on Thursday night, the scene of much jubilation in June sucking a little life from their fresh Qatar 2022 bid. No doubt, the still-suffocating heat played its part.
Round 3, which for Group A carries two automatic spots at next year’s finals, is undeniably more challenging than the phase just passed, but going forward, the UAE will have to take better their chances when not quite at their best.
On Thursday, Ali Mabkhout emerged as the main culprit, the country’s all-time leading goalscorer spurning a succession of opportunities in the first half. To be fair to Mabkhout, only two could be classed as gilt-edged; the second struck the woodwork.
Patently, it was a comedown after the UAE's second-round romp, when the national team netted 15 goals in 13 days to progress as group winners. With Syria up next, in Amman on Tuesday, they will feel somewhat more urgent about gleaning the three points. At 98th in Fifa’s global standings, Lebanon represent the lowest-ranked team in Group A. Syria, who began with a narrow defeat at pool favourites Iran, constitute a sizeable step up.
Van Marwijk and staff will surely hope Abdullah Ramadan, one of the stars of the latter stages of the second round, will be available to start in five days’ time. Against Lebanon, he was a late substitute, his now-customary contribution stymied by minor injury.
This was a welcome Ivan Hasek would have settled for, the Czech taking charge of Lebanon for the first time, whose memories would have recognised slightly more hospitable hosts. Hasek has managed four UAE clubs during his considerable coaching career, two of those stretching across two stints each.
The opening chance of the match fell to another familiar face, when on four minutes Hassan Maatouk, the former Fujairah forward and now Lebanon captain, forced a smart low save from Ali Khaseif in the UAE goal.
That seemed to spark the home side into life; within five minutes Ali Mabkhout had played a neat one-two with Mahmoud Khamis only to skew wide from the edge of the area. Soon after, Mabkhout was sent through by Fabio De Lima, but once more scuffed off target his shot. To be fair, the angle was tight.
As it was moments after the half hour, when qualification lead marksman was again played in by De Lima. This time, Mabkhout rounded goalkeeper Mostafa Matar, however with the angle narrowing sharply, his shot struck the outside of the near post. Their slow start subsided, the UAE were now in the ascendency.
That dominance should really have paid dividends in first-half injury-time, once the livewire Bandar Al Ahbabi torched towards the right byline and whipped a cross across the six-yard box. Caio Canedo met the ball on an admittedly wicked bounce, directing it high over the Lebanon goal. The visitors, who almost in a flash found themselves at the other end claiming wildly for a penalty, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The UAE took longer to get into their attacking stride in the second half. Midway through, though, Mabkhout flashed an effort inches wide from the corner of the box. It drew a collective gasp from the crowd, whom sensed some more urgency, even in the stifling conditions, was in order.
To do just that, Van Marwijk introduced Ramadan for the final 20 minutes. The midfielder replaced Abdullah Hamad, bringing to a close a superb debut for the youngster, a real bright note on the night.
Yet there weren't too many of those. Even on Match Day 1 from 10, the UAE lost ground. An opening victory, to keep the good times rolling, proved painstakingly beyond them.