The UAE take on Iraq in Saudi Arabia on Thursday in a potentially decisive 2022 World Cup qualifier. Currently third in Group A with two matches remaining, a win against fifth-placed Iraq will almost secure the final-round play-off spot with one match to spare. The UAE conclude their group campaign against already qualified South Korea on March 29.
Here, The National looks at some of the main talking points facing new manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena heading into Thursday’s crunch game in Riyadh.
Putting limited training time into practice
Arruabarrena’s appointment last month came as a shock. OK, Bert van Marwijk’s future had been the subject of speculation for much of the previous few months, but with two qualifiers remaining, the Dutchman was expected to still be in situ. However, the FA opted for Arruabarrena instead. The Argentine, 46, has an excellent record within UAE club football, with Al Wasl and Shabab Al Ahli, but this marks his first taste of international management.
More pressingly, he has had only 10 days to work with his players. Of course, Arruabarrena knows the league, and visited numerous clubs before naming his squad, but he will need to have gotten across his philosophy in next-to-no time.
Deciding on his No 1
Ali Khaseif, the preferred goalkeeper under Van Marwijk, is unavailable, meaning Arruabarrena is without one of the country's most experienced players. Khaseif is viewed as both a leader on the pitch – he is often captain – and off it, a vocal presence in the dressing room, even if his recent UAE performances have been rightly criticised.
In his absence, Arruabarrena has brought back into the fold Khalid Essa and Majed Nasser, while Mohammed Al Shamsi continues to be called up. Both Essa and Nasser are hugely experienced, with the former more recently his national team’s No 1. The Al Ain goalkeeper, whose club side lead the Adnoc Pro League, might just get the nod.
Finding that creative spark
The UAE’s mission to glean three all-important points has in no way been helped by the absence through suspension of Abdullah Ramadan and Tahnoun Al Zaabi. The two midfielders have been among the side’s best performers during the past nine months, with Ramadan excelling especially in last June's finale to Round 2. Al Zaabi, meanwhile, was one of only a few bright spots in the latter part of this campaign and during the Fifa Arab Cup in December.
Both possess the ability to see a pass; Ramadan usually from deeper in midfield, with Al Jazira teammate Ali Mabkhout a frequent benefactor. With forward Fabio De Lima out injured, finding some guile in attack could prove difficult. Much, you would imagine, then will be on Ali Saleh and Caio Canedo - two players Arruabarrena knows well from Wasl.
Ali Mabkhout’s timely return
For some time the UAE’s record goalscorer, Mabkhout’s absence during the two most recent qualifiers have been keenly felt. The Jazira striker, still lead scorer across the entire World Cup qualification (14 goals), had been woefully out of form, but he remains the team's chief threat.
Admittedly, Mabkhout’s miserable run in front of goal – he has found the net only three times this round, missing a host of presentable chances – has contributed to the UAE’s poor return: they have scored six goals in eight matches thus far in the group. That said, Mabkhout’s influence extends beyond the pitch, while his presence on it can strike fear into opponents. With striker Sebastian Tagliabue injured, Mabkhout will be expected once again to step to the fore.
Use the neutral venue to their advantage
Undeniably, the change of venue last week from Baghdad to Riyadh makes the task that much more difficult for Iraq. The hosts were to play the first official competitive Fifa match in their homeland since October 2019, and would have enjoyed a partisan support. However, the match has been moved to the King Fahd Stadium after the Asian Football Confederation said on Saturday the “safety and security situation in Iraq” forced the change.
The UAE should use the neutral venue to their advantage. It could even help focus the mind; the Iraq contest demands it. South Korea are to come, five days after, but victory in Saudi would most probably seal the play-off slot.