Key issues UAE face ahead of crucial 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Syria and Iran

National team face must-win double header in their hopes of an automatic place in Qatar

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On Thursday, the UAE resume the final round of 2022 World Cup qualification, with the must-win home tie against Syria in Dubai. The match kicks off a crucial double-header across five days: after Syria, the national team travel to Iran to face the Group A leaders.

Currently third in the standings with four qualifiers remaining – the UAE sit eight points off the automatic spots – we look at some of the main issues manager Bert van Marwijk must confront.

Cutting out individual errors

While fulfilling media duties on Monday, veteran defender Walid Abbas reminded teammates that there can be “no room for complacency”. Of course, that applies to not underestimating Syria, even if they lie bottom of the group. It’s worth remembering that, last September, the UAE were held by Syria to a 1-1 draw in Jordan.

However, the mantra extends to the pitch, too. Mistakes have proven costly, chiefly in the corresponding fixture against Syria, when Shaheen Abdulrahman’s error allowed their rivals to snatch a point. The defence was then caught out against Iran at home - goalkeeper Ali Khaseif too hesitant also - and the visitors secured a 1-0 victory.

Days later in Dubai, Mohammed Al Attas headed into his own net as the UAE were eventually held to a 2-2 draw by Iraq. In the Fifa Arab Cup last month, the 5-0 quarter-final exit to hosts Qatar was littered with goal-gifting mistakes. Clearly, the UAE must cut those out.

Individual errors contributed to the UAE's 5-0 defeat to Qatar in the Fifa Arab Cup. AFP

Supplying the creative spark from midfield

For much of the final round, the UAE have struggled to get right their combination in midfield, albeit for which there are a number of reasons. Ali Salmeen and Abdullah Ramadan, two stars of the previous stage, usually anchor the centre, yet they have suffered throughout with injury and fitness issues. In six matches, the pair have started together only twice.

Further forward has proved hugely problematic also, with the team lacking a traditional playmaker. Ismail Matar has not been selected, Khalfan Mubarak remains sidelined, while Omar Abdulrahman has only recently returned from injury at Shabab Al Ahli.

Tahnoun Al Zaabi, though, was a bright spark in that position during the Fifa Arab Cup. However, Fabio De Lima represents the greatest miss. The Al Wasl forward is vital to the team’s play, but ruptured his Achilles last week and required surgery.

Abdullah Ramadan is a key midfielder for the UAE but has suffered from injury issues. AFP

Finding someone to lead the line

This appears the most pressing area of concern for the side. All-time leading goalscorer Ali Mabkhout remains unavailable – the striker has not played for club or country since the Fifa Arab Cup – and Sebastian Tagliabue has only just returned to training after recent illness.

In six matches thus far, the UAE have scored four goals, and would have been much closer to automatic qualification had they converted a succession of chances (the theory goes that they really should have four more points, at least).

Should Tagliabue, already not used too often by Van Marwijk, not be deemed fit enough to start against Syria, then the options for an obvious spearhead seem scant. Caio Canedo could lead the line, so too Ali Saleh, yet they aren’t naturals in that position. Van Marwijk will most likely have to get creative.

UAE's lead striker Ali Mabkhout has not played for club or country since the Fifa Arab Cup. AFP

Van Marwijk getting the fans back onside

Back in his second stint as manager, the Dutchman has come under increasing pressure as the final round has progressed. There were growing calls in October for Van Marwijk to be dismissed following the 2-2 draw at home to Iraq, prompting the Football Association to reiterate its backing for the head coach.

However, the manner of the exit from the Fifa Arab Cup looked to have maybe forced the governing body’s hand. Instead, the national team committee resigned, and the new set-up eventually opted to keep on Van Marwijk.

His contract runs through until the conclusion of qualification, in March. By then, the UAE will hope to have at least secured the first of a series of play-off to make Qatar 2022. Still, victory on Thursday feels a must for Van Marwijk, as much as it does for his team.

UAE manager Bert van Marwijk has received backing from the FA despite coming under pressure. AFP
Updated: January 26, 2022, 2:43 AM