The UAE's own 2022 World Cup hopes may be hanging by the thinnest of threads but Emirates football will be represented in Qatar in a small capacity after former Al Ain manager Zlatko Dalic guided Croatia to the finals on Sunday night courtesy of a late dramatic win over Russia.
Croatia, who trailed Russia by two points heading into the crunch tie at the Stadion Poljud in Split, needed a win to claim top spot in Group H and earn the only automatic spot for Qatar. The 2018 World Cup runners-up duly collected all three points as a late Fedor Kudryashov own goal gave them a 1-0 over Russia, who will now head into the March playoffs.
Croatia dominated a match played in driving rain but a string of good saves by visiting goalkeeper Matvei Safonov and a waterlogged pitch kept them at bay before Kudryashov's clumsy 80th-minute touch delighted the home fans.
Dalic broke down in tears after the game having come under pressure from fans and media during Croatia's patchy qualifying campaign, and he was quick to praise his players and the supporters.
"It's a relief, it was a titanic tussle and I want to congratulate all the players who took part in these qualifiers," said Dalic, who during his nearly three-year spell at Al Ain guided the club to an Arabian Gulf League title, UAE President's Cup triumph, and the final of the 2016 Asian Champions League.
"A big thanks to the fans too, from the bottom of my heart. You're our pride and energy. Hence the tears, I don't cry very often but this victory was one of the greatest sporting moments of my life.
"Every game in charge is sacred to me and what we achieved here today is priceless. Now we have a year to prepare and improve for the World Cup in Qatar."
Needing a draw to qualify, the Russians defended with everyone behind the ball and soaked up intense pressure as the Croatians besieged their goal but failed to create clear-cut chances.
Andrej Kramaric headed straight at Safonov in the ninth minute before Marcelo Brozovic unleashed two long-range efforts, one sailing inches wide and the other drawing an acrobatic save from the visiting keeper.
Safonov kept out a close-range Mario Pasalic header with a superb stop in the 47th minute and the Russians appeared to be home and dry before they were undone by Kudryashov's error.
With waves of Croatian attacks losing momentum on a difficult pitch, left-back Borna Sosa floated in a hopeful cross from the left and Kudryashov bundled the ball into his own net after it bounced awkwardly in front of him.
Russia missed their only chance to salvage the game from their first fluent move in stoppage time, Vyacheslav Karavaev firing over the bar.
Luka Modric said Croatia deserved their luck after keeping Russia on the back foot throughout.
"It was a difficult match as we expected but we played a great game. We were a bit lucky with the goal but we earned it because of how we pressed. We were patient and we kept believing until the end," he said.
The UAE, meanwhile, continue their World Cup qualification campaign against Lebanon on Tuesday. Bert van Marwijk's winless side sit fifth in Group A after five matches, 10 points behind leaders Iran and eight points adrift of South Korea in second. A win over third-placed Lebanon in Sidon would move the UAE up to third if Iraq, in fourth, fail to beat South Korea.
The top two teams from each of the two groups in Asian qualifying earn automatic places to Qatar, while the third-place teams enter a series of playoffs.