Two matches into this closing round of World Cup qualification, and the UAE’s global-finals aspirations threaten to fizzle out before they could catch fire.
On Tuesday, the national team were held to a second successive qualifying draw, adding a 1-1 against Syria in Jordan to the stalemate with Lebanon in Dubai five days previously. Their Group A campaign, which offers only two direct berths at Qatar 2022 and possibly a backdoor third, teeters already.
Once more, the UAE were left to rue missed opportunities; this time, though, a mistake cost them dear. How promising it had appeared when Ali Mabkhout, the UAE’s all-time lead goalscorer, put his side in front 12 minutes in at the King Abdullah II Stadium, where Syria had to contest this "home" fixture.
Then, not long after the hour, defender Shaheen Abdulrahman erred and their opponents snatched their point. For the UAE, two from a possible six makes dire reading, even if in theory there remains plenty to play for. Next up, Iran and Iraq, in a double-header, four weeks from now.
In Amman, the UAE could not have wished for a better start. Sniffing out Abdulrahman’s long ball over the top from deep, Mabkhout anticipated somehow that Syria goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma would misjudge the bounce before prodding his team into the lead. In extending his country’s all-time tally to 77 goals, Mabkhout drew alongside Pele in the official international scoring charts. Only Cristiano Ronaldo - remember the name - sits ahead on the active list.
Yet the UAE failed to build on the early boost. Instead, they found themselves extremely fortunate not to concede. Shortly after the half hour, Omar Khribin missed not one gilt-edged chance, but two. The second, when alone five yards from goal and with the ball landing directly on his right foot, the Syrian forward contrived to place wide. Little wonder manager Nizar Mahrous, much like his shocked No 7, held his head in his hands. Khribin, remember, plies his club trade in the UAE, for Arabian Gulf League side Al Wahda.
But eventually Syria did draw level, making the UAE pay – finally – for an error-strewn display. Abdulrahman played the culprit. Attempting to chest down an opposing cross in his own six-yard box, the defender slipped to allow Mahmoud Al Baher to pounce. Obliging his bit of fortune, the Syrian substitute drilled his shot beyond Khaseif.
Startled into life, the UAE fought back. Fabio De Lima found Alma’s fingertips when through on goal and seemingly set to score, while both he and Caio headed chances off target. Then, with 10 minutes remaining, Mabkhout met unmarked Bandar Al Ahbabi’s free-kick, but flicked well wide his header. Stationed close to goal, he had only Alma to beat.
In the end, Mabkhout and colleagues had to settle for a point. Far from what was desired, or required, the road to Qatar threw up another significant bump.