Beaten but not yet bowed, the UAE search still for this final round of World Cup qualification to ignite, as the road to Qatar 2022 suffered another set-back on Thursday night.
The national team were defeated 1-0 by Iran in Dubai, enduring a third match at the start of this campaign without victory, when the No 1-ranked team in Asia eventually broke them down and snatched the points.
The UAE were spirited and for large parts the better side at the Zabeel Stadium, but a late goal consigned them to an undeniably damaging loss. Almost one third of the way through Group A, they sit on two points, Iran racing away from them at the summit with three wins from three, South Korea in between on seven points. Remember, only the top two are guaranteed to progress to next year’s global finals.
On Thursday, Mehdi Taremi struck the decisive blow, the player from Porto in an established European league proving his pedigree. For the UAE, they can look only to next Tuesday, at home to Iraq, as another opportunity to go again.
Seeking a first win in 14 official clashes with Iran, the home side actually began the brighter. Their first chance arrived as early as five minutes, when Ali Mabkhout slid in the returning Khalil Ibrahim, only for the Al Wahda winger to be outmuscled easily as he tried to bear down on goal.
It was Ibrahim, too, who spurned the best chance of the first 45 minutes. Fabio De Lima released Bandar Al Ahbabi down the UAE’s right and, meeting the full-back’s bounced centre at the back post, Ibrahim headed way off target. The home support, by that point loud and lively, shed a collective groan.
Slow to grow into the game, Iran’s most promising play came on the break seven minutes from half-time, when Sardar Armoun ran at the hosts’ backtracking defence. The Zenit St Petersburg forward, one of Asia’s most accomplished attackers, elected to shoot instead of playing in a colleague, but his effort was blocked expertly by Shaheen Abdulrahman. The Sharjah captain, who gifted Syria their equaliser in the draw last month, was evidently keen to make amends.
In first-half injury time, Iran breathed a collective sigh of relief. Having minutes before been booked, Omid Norrafkan tripped Mabkhout as he flicked the ball through his rival’s leg. The official, however, waved away UAE appeals, even if it appeared they had a strong point. Iran coach Dragan Skocic obviously felt some concern; Norrafkan was hooked during the break. In contrast, Bert van Marwijk introduced Mohammed Juma for Ibrahim.
There was a scare for the UAE at the beginning of the second half, when Mohammed Al Attas left short a back pass to Ali Khaseif, but the UAE goalkeeper, captain for the night in Walid Abbas's absence, managed to just about get there before Azmoun. Soon after, he saved low from Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
On the hour, the game appeared to have turned. Mabkhout exchanged passes with Juma and, sent racing clear, the UAE striker was hauled down by the chasing Shojae Khalilzadeh. The official reached immediately for his red card but, in the yawning break that ensued and with UAE prepared to take a free-kick inches outside the penalty area, the video assistant referee ruled Mabkhout was in fact offside when receiving the original pass. In all, it took six minutes for the game to restart. Iran had a major reprieve.
Blatantly buoyed, the visitors struck. The UAE defence was caught too high up the pitch, leaving Azmoun acres of space to loop a pass to Taremi. The frontman, poor until that point, placed easily past the onrushing Khaseif. This time, Khaseif had erred. His teammates had 15 minutes to salvage something.
As the UAE tired, Iran were dangerous on the counter, Taremi firing high and side from the angle, then winning a penalty, when felled by Abdullah Ramadan. However, Khaseif saved brilliantly from Azmoun's spot-kick.
That was to be the final major incident. Iran had grabbed the spoils, the UAE left again to lick wounds. Patently, victory in Tuesday’s tussle with a Iraq, similarly winless, feels a must.