The UAE host Iran, Asia’s No 1-ranked side, in Dubai on Thursday night, as they aim to bounce back from last month’s disappointing opening to the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
We look at some of the main talking points ahead of this crucial qualifier on Match Day 3 on the road to Qatar.
On-form Ali Mabkhout firing
The UAE’s all-time record goalscorer came into the final round as the lead marksman in all of World Cup qualification, with 11 goals. That he added only one to that tally last month came as something of a surprise. Really, Mabkhout could have had at least two goals more, which would have turned one of, if not both, draws into victories.
Against Lebanon, the striker squandered two huge chances, while despite opening the scoring early against Syria, he should have had another, right at the death. Thankfully, Mabkhout has found his scoring boots in the Adnoc Pro League, with three goals in the past three matches to move within one of the all-time top-flight record. Thus, he arrives at the Iran match on form. To glean a positive result, the UAE will undeniably need a confident and clinical Mabkhout.
Support cast supplying
Mabkhout may have been the chief culprit in the first two fixtures, but he was certainly not alone. The UAE were made to pay for a succession of missed opportunities, with Fabio De Lima off-colour against Lebanon and Syria. Also, Caio Canedo had perhaps the clearest opportunity in the opener, even if he had to deal with a wicked bounce from a cross, and against Syria headed off target when seemingly well poised.
After Lebanon, manager Bert van Marwijk lamented that his side, rarely troubled defensively, should have scored “at least two, three goals”. A greater contribution this time is expected from De Lima, who wasn’t fully fit last month, although the Al Wasl forward hasn’t scored in his past three club matches – and has only one in six league games. The return of winger Khalil Al Hammadi should help, while calls continue for a specialist playmaker, such as Khalfan Mubarak.
Replacing key absentees
No doubt, the absence through injury of Walid Abbas and Ali Salmeen weakens the UAE. Abbas, now 36, is a veteran defender but also the team’s captain, with his experience and expertise in marshalling the backline evident during the crammed conclusion to the second round of qualification in June. Khalifa Al Hammadi seems most likely to partner Shaheen Abdulrahman in central defence, or perhaps even Mohammed Al Attas, even if the Al Jazira youngsters, both hugely talented and UAE champions, have at times struggled – completely understandable given their youthfulness.
Meanwhile, Salmeen’s unavailability will be keenly felt. The Wasl midfielder remains Van Marwijk’s midfield general, dogged and determined, talented on the ball too, who forms a perfect screen for the defence. The gifted Majed Hassan is expected to come in, but still, he has not built the fine understanding in the centre of the team that Salmeen has with Abdullah Ramadan.
Utilising the squad
One of the main criticisms from the opening two matches centred on Van Marwijk’s perceived delay in making substitutions. Against an increasingly obdurate Lebanon, as the UAE sought to break the deadlock, the Dutchman introduced Mubarak in the 84th minute, while his final changes constituted Khalifa Al Hammadi replacing Abdulrahman – a like-for-like replacement, in defence – and attacking midfielder Tahnoun Al Zaabi coming in for a below-par De Lima.
Many expected striker Sebastian Tagliabue to be called upon. The same applied against Syria when, with the score 1-1, Van Marwijk made only two late subs and again left Tagliabue on the bench. The Al Nasr frontman’s introduction seemed certain, especially given the amount of crosses the UAE created in both fixtures. It’s worth remembering that attacking full-back Bandar Al Ahbabi boasts brilliant delivery. Currently, Tagliabue enjoys a rich vein of form for Nasr, scoring three goals in his past four league outings to make it five in five this season.
Stopping Iran’s fearsome frontmen
In Mehdi Taremi and Sardour Azmoun, Iran can claim to possess the continent’s best attacking partnership. The former has underlined his ability since moving to Portugal in 2019, scoring 38 times in 72 league appearances, and has been in sparkling form lately for Porto. Azmoun continues also to excel at Zenit St Petersburg, striking 50 times in 73 league matches since joining in early 2019.
The pair are supported by the likes of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the former Brighton & Hove Albion forward who struck last month’s winner against Syria and the opener in the 3-0 victory against Iraq. Plainly, the UAE defence will be tested. Solid against Lebanon, the national team were much more complacent against Syria, giving up a number of chances. In the end, they were fortunate Omar Khirbin was uncharacteristically profligate. That said, Syria’s equaliser came via a woeful error from Abdulrahman. Clearly, the team in general must defend better on Thursday.