De Lima, Matar and Mabkhout: key issues facing UAE ahead of vital World Cup qualifiers

National team, fourth in Group A, take on South Korea on Thursday and Lebanon on November 16

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The UAE, currently fourth in Group A, look to get their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign back on track this week, with a tricky test away to second-placed South Korea. Winless from four matches thus far, Bert van Marwijk’s men need a positive result in Goyang before they travel to take on Lebanon five days later.

Finding replacement for De Lima

The confirmation came on Tuesday, a sizeable blow to the UAE’s bid to breathe life into their campaign. A hamstring injury has forced Fabio De Lima out of the double-header, reducing considerably the national team’s attacking thrust.

The Al Wasl forward has not been at his best during the past four matches, when fitness issues hampered his output. It hurts more, then, that the UAE have struggled to score – they have three goals in four fixtures. And midfield options have been ravaged: Majed Hassan, Abdullah Hamad and Khalfan Mubarak are injured, robbing the UAE of experience, running and guile.

Some relief can be found in Ali Salmeen’s return, but filling the creative void is crucial. Ismail Matar, or club colleague Tahnoon Al Zaabi, could come in.

Matar’s leadership may prove vital

Ismail Matar’s inclusion was undoubtedly the greatest surprise upon the squad announcement. At 38, the veteran forward hasn't played for the UAE since the beginning of 2019 – the Asian Cup semi-final – and hasn't featured in Bert van Marwijk’s plans since he first took the reins two months later.

There had long been cries for Matar to be reintroduced to the national set-up, but they had quietened as Van Marwijk’s young side advanced from the second round. So, it is interesting to see what role he will play.

Matar has scored once in nine Adnoc Pro League matches, but remains an incredibly influential presence among his peers. Having him around the squad should be viewed a bonus, even if his impact on the pitch is limited.

Mabkhout must rediscover form

It has quickly become a common theme: when Ali Mabkhout misfires, the UAE struggle. The country’s all-time leading goalscorer has been uncharacteristically wayward in four matches thus far, finding the net just twice (his last-gasp effort against Iraq did salvage a point).

Against Lebanon and Syria, Mabkhout spurned a number of opportunities that should have fired the UAE to victory. He was off-colour again last time out, to such an extent that supporters called repeatedly for him to be replaced by Sebastian Tagliabue.

To be fair, the lack of game time for the Al Nasr striker is one of the principal complaints justifiably aimed at Van Marwijk. Still, an on-form Mabkhout is the UAE’s most potent weapon. Put simply, he must start converting chances.

Van Marwijk needs an uptick too

Last month’s defeat to Iran and draw with Iraq, both coming at home, cranked up the pressure on Van Marwijk. Against Iraq, a large section of the Zabeel Stadium chorused their disapproval, with some even waiting outside afterwards to call for the manager to leave.

Since, though, the Football Association reiterated their backing for the manager, which was refreshing (there have been significant improvements under Van Marwijk, albeit three points from four qualifiers remains hugely disappointing).

Chief among the criticism levelled at the Dutchman is his propensity to leave substitutions too late in games. Clearly, he needs to turn around the team’s fortunes. And, just maybe, he requires a positive result as much as his side.

Stopping Son

South Korea have not wholly convinced – they have two wins and two draws thus far - but for sure they represent a serious test. In Son, they possess Asia’s standout star, the Tottenham Hotspur attacker scoring a late winner last month against Syria, and then the opener in the 1-1 draw in Iran. With Kim Gun-hee struggling and Hwang Ui-jo out through injury, Son’s importance is even greater.

Meanwhile, Hwang Hee-chan has been in sparkling form for new club Wolverhampton Wanderers. Thwarting Son and Co is not made any easier with defenders Shaheen Abdulrahman, Khalifa Al Hammadi and Mahmoud Khamis all injured.

The cold weather – on Monday it dropped to 5C around kick-off time – and the return of fans makes the UAE’s task even more difficult.

Updated: November 10, 2021, 4:18 AM