In the end, the scoreline flattered the UAE.
It did not tell the full tale of a tense and troublesome night in the cold in Goyang, where South Korea triumphed 1-0 and the UAE’s World Cup hopes suffered yet another set-back.
South Korea were spritely and by far superior, adding three more points to their bid to make a 10th successive global finals. For a brief spell on Thursday, they even topped Group A, relegated to second only once Iran had later snatched a last-gasp 2-1 victory in Lebanon.
The UAE, grasping to reach a second World Cup in the country’s history, stayed stuck in fourth, ambitions of Qatar 2022 diminishing by the round. After five matchdays in the final phase of qualification, Bert van Marwijk’s men search still for a first victory. They have gleaned three points from a possible 15, consigned now to watching South Korea and Iran disappear over the horizon.
At the halfway point, the UAE lay eight points short of the two automatic spots; surely they must cling instead to the chase for third. Two points behind current incumbent Lebanon, whom they face in Sidon on Tuesday, that provides a backdoor route to the World Cup via a series of play-offs. Even still, considerable improvement is required.
On Thursday, at a Goyang Stadium that welcomed back for the first time this campaign South Korean fans in attendance, the UAE’s already daunting task was exacerbated by a lengthy and limiting injury list. Defenders Shaheen Abdulrahman, Mahmoud Khamis and Khalifa Al Hammadi were missing. In midfield, no Majed Hassan or Khalfan Mubarak. Perhaps most pertinently, forward Fabio De Lima had been sidelined in the build-up by a hamstring issue. How the UAE could have done with his thrust.
In, then, came Al Wahda trio Mohammed Barghash, Tahnoun Al Zaabi and Ismail Matar. At 38 years old, Matar had not represented the national team since January 2019.
That the UAE were stymied by their selection was evident from the beginning. South Korea raced from the blocks. Within the opening half hour, Son Heung-min had twice navigated his way past Ali Khaseif, the UAE goalkeeper, but found the side-netting with each effort, the angle always tightening. In that time, the hosts had twice gone close from corners. On 13 minutes, Cho Gue-sung rattled a post from range.
Then, South Korea grabbed what proved to be the winner. A succession of misplaced passes allowed Hwang In-beom to twist in the penalty area and, as soon as Ali Salmeen flung out his leg, the infringement seemed inevitable. Hwang Hee-chan, the in-form and on-loan forward at Wolverhampton Wanderers, rolled in the resultant spot-kick. Nine minutes from half-time, the floodgates appeared poised to open.
Yet the other goals never came. Not even when Son slalomed through the UAE defence and curled his shot on to the base of the post. Not when the Tottenham Hotspur attacker, quickly underpinning his position as the continent’s standout star, swivelled onto a rebound and fired straight at Khaseif. Not when, now in the second half, Son poked narrowly wide, or flighted a header onto the crossbar, or skied a shot when well placed, or prodded the ball directly into Khaseif’s gloves, beating the ground in frustration.
For the UAE, their only genuine attempt at goal arrived around the hour mark. However, Al Zaabi’s curled effort from the edge of the home area, which concluded a neat move, was palmed to safety by Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu. Other than that, the UAE had been outplayed.
To his credit, Matar fronted up in the flash interview afterwards, so clearly hurting while conceding his side “should have dealt with the match better”. All focus, the veteran remarked, had to shift towards Sidon, five days from then.
Van Marwijk will do well to lift spirits for what surely transforms into a must-win match. After the latest reverse, the UAE have to recalibrate: third place, and that improbable path to Qatar, feels the realistic target now.