The UAE were defeated, for the first time this tournament, but still they booked a spot in the quarter-finals of the 2021 Fifa Arab Cup.
The Group B finale against Tunisia in Doha on Monday had not even finished when news began to waft around Al Thumama Stadium: Mauritania, the bottom team in the standings, had beaten Syria 2-1 not far away in Al Wakrah. Now guaranteed second spot, the UAE had progressed.
No matter then, really, that they would go on to suffer the 1-0 reverse, sealed by Seifeddine Jaziri’s solitary strike right at the beginning of the match.
OK, the UAE let slip top berth to their eventual victors, but would advance anyway as runners-up. In the end, once the decider had run its course and the dust soon settled, the six points gleaned from the opening two ties this past week proved enough.
A place in the last eight of this rebranded Fifa event is theirs; there, on Friday, the UAE meet Qatar, tournament hosts and reigning Asian champions. While surely not the match-up manager Bert van Marwijk would have prioritised — Qatar are among the favourites for the trophy — the UAE’s tilt at the title rumbles on.
On Monday, they survived the surprise absence through injury of star striker Ali Mabkhout, even if the country’s all-time leading goalscorer has been wildly off form. They did well too without goalkeeper Ali Khaseif, often captain and a regular sounding board, entrusting the experienced Khalid Essa instead.
They even played the entire second half minus skipper Walid Abbas following an earlier kick to his head. Of course, improvement will be required for Qatar, but the UAE are still there, in with a shout.
They were behind on 10 minutes at a piercing and partisan Al Thumama Stadium, much to the delight of the heavy Tunisian support. Collecting a loose ball some way from goal, Tunisia captain Youssef Msakni slalomed through the ragged UAE defence before Essa thwarted his run. However, the ball broke loose to Jaziri, who slotted home easily the rebound.
Struggling to carve any real chances, the UAE finally tested opposition goalkeeper Mouez Hassen on 24 minutes, when Ali Saleh curled an effort from range straight from a short corner. The shot, dipping inches under the crossbar, was palmed away to safety.
Moments later, Essa saved well from Jaziri after pushing the ball into the thick of the penalty area, with Mohammed Al Attas then on hand to block the subsequent rebound. The UAE defender was alert once more soon after, preventing Msakni from scoring into an empty net, instigated by a mix-up between Ali Salmeen and Essa.
In truth, there should have been little anyone could do just before half-time, when Naim Sliti drove into the UAE area and pulled the ball across to Jaziri. With the goal gaping, though, the Tunisia forward contrived to steer his shot on to the outside of the post. He was four yards out.
Forced into a change at half-time, with Abbas withdrawn for Mohanad Salem, the UAE grew into the match. Sliti had fired wide when well placed almost immediately after the restart, and Van Marwijk's relieved side began to assert themselves.
On 52 minutes, Salem flicked on a Saleh free-kick that deflected off Tunisia’s Ghailene Chaalali, prompting Hassen into a fine reactionary save. He was stationed right on his goalline. It was easily the closest the UAE had come. They did so again, right at the death, when left-back Mahmoud Khamis powered his drive inches wide.
Irrespective of that, or the failure to pilfer a point, the UAE continue. In the quarters, they will miss Abbas, not through injury but suspension following a first-half booking against Tunisia, but the initial mission is complete. The knockout stages beckon.