Desperately in need of victory to spark their World Cup campaign, the UAE could not deliver.
They were held to a 2-2 draw by Iraq in a sapping finale in Dubai on Tuesday night, an already teetering final-round run trembling some more.
Four matches in on this final stretch to what they hope be Qatar 2022, the UAE remain winless, now fourth in Group A. Stuck on three points, they languish a long way from the top two slots that guarantee a berth at the global finals.
How to sum up a frenetic conclusion at the Zabeel Stadium? Leading through Caio Canedo’s first-half strike, the UAE found themselves 2-1 down deep into injury-time courtesy of a Mohammed Al Attas own goal and substitute Ayman Hussein’s late finish.
Then, Ali Mabkhout equalised from close range to set up a barnstorming finish, and Khalfan Mubarak appeared to have won it. It took a Video Assistant Referee review – the prodded shot looked beyond the Iraqi line, but was judged not – and then the referee to signal that it was, in fact, the final act of the game.
When all was said and done, the UAE had suffered what could be a decisive blow in their aspirations of direct qualification. They must now surely focus on third place and a backdoor route to the World Cup.
The UAE had led for some time. Just after the half hour Majed Hassan drove into space before passing to Mabkhout. The UAE striker laid off the ball to Abdullah Hamad, who just about got his studs in the way to play in Canedo.
Having continued his surge forward, and now in behind the Iraq defence, the forward swivelled and drilled high into the roof of the net. The UAE support, growing increasingly agitated, roared their approval, perhaps more out of sheer relief than anything else.
Canedo, who has struggled to catch fire for his adopted country, raced to the corner in celebration and leapt upon the fence opposite the home fans.
Until that point, the UAE had been particularly poor. Perhaps the strain of the occasion was weighing heavily, for straightforward passes were misplaced, little interplay on evidence.
Actually, the opening goal came moments after Iraq carved their best chance. Played in on goal via a lofted pass that caught static the UAE defence, captain Alaa Abdul Zahra poked wide as Ali Khaseif closed quickly the angle. Scare survived, soon the UAE had seized the lead.
They should have doubled it not long into the second half. Fabio De Lima set free the irrepressible Bandar Al Ahbabi down the UAE right, leaving the full-back to square to Mabkhout.
The frontman, off colour now in his two most recent internationals, slid and stretched and just about connected with the ball. However, with only Iraq goalkeeper Fahad Talib to beat, he stabbed wide. In truth, Al Ahbabi’s centre was always just getting away from him.
On the hour, Iraq threatened to draw level. Presented with a free-kick right on the edge of the UAE penalty area, defender Ali Faez curled a fierce effort goalwards, only for Khaseif to punch clear. It was the first time the visitors had truly tested the UAE captain.
At the other end, Mabkhout failed to escape his marker when played in over the top. It prompted calls from the stands for Sebastian Tagliabue, his fellow striker. Those only grew louder on 70 minutes, when Mabkhout shot straight at Talib after De Lima had slipped him in.
Then, in a blink of an eye, disaster. Attempting to head clear a floated cross at the UAE back post, instead Mohammed Al Attas glanced the ball into his own net. Van Marwijk, now drawing the ire of the supporters, sent on playmaker Mubarak in a bid to rescue the result.
Yet, a neat stepover from Amir Al Ammari teed up Hussein’s cool finish. Suddenly, the UAE stared defeat in the eyes. Finally, Mabkhout stepped up, ramming the ball over the Iraq line to salvage a point.
Though, that was nowhere near enough. Seeking that win, that triumph to spark a flagging campaign, the UAE departed in disappointment. The road to Qatar took another unwelcome twist.