On Tuesday, the UAE face Australia in Qatar in the first of what they hope will be two play-offs to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. We look at some of the main talking points facing manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena and his side heading into the must-win match in Al Rayyan.
What impact will the returning Omar Abdulrahman have?
Even now, long after his lead role within the national team has diminished and following yet another lengthy spell out through injury, Omar Abdulrahman is at the forefront of minds heading into a pivotal period for the UAE. The playmaker, sidelined for Shabab Al Ahli for much of the season, made his long-awaited international return in Sunday’s 1-1 draw in the friendly with Gambia in Dubai, where he was introduced after half-time and handed the captain’s armband.
It marked Abdulrahman’s first UAE appearance in two-and-a-half years. So, what can the 2016 Asian player of the year bring to the fold? Undoubtedly, his inclusion has lifted the group, especially when the UAE have been lacking a truly effective No 10 for quite a while. Even aged 30, and with the recent injury troubles, Abdulrahman remains the squad’s most talented creator; his performances for club during the Asian Champions League group stage in April were testament to that.
However, Abdulrahman is still some way short of full fitness, and the physicality of Australia could significantly hinder his impact. Of course, though, the UAE would much prefer him in the squad, or to call upon if and when required.
Can Ali Mabkhout shake his current funk?
Alongside Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout has for some time been a leading light for the UAE. The Al Jazira striker stands alone as the country’s record goalscorer. In fact, Mabkhout sits at the top of the goal charts for the entire 2022 World Cup qualification having found the next 14 times. Yet that does not tell the full story.
The frontman was uncharacteristically wasteful throughout the final round, scoring only three times in seven matches. Look back even farther, and Sunday’s converted penalty against Gambia made it four goals in Mabkhout’s past 11 appearances for the UAE. That has been matched with a similarly inconsistent spell with Jazira (10 league goals this season), meaning he goes into the play-offs some way short of form.
It is not oversimplifying matters to say the UAE’s hopes of making Qatar 2022 depend to a great extent on their star forward's ruthlessness in front of goal. Thankfully, Mabkhout has previous against Australia; he scored the winner the last time the teams met, in the 2019 Asian Cup quarter-final. Tapping into that memorable moment might lift Mabkhout from his current malaise.
With issues on the left, how will the defence shape up?
The absence of Mahmoud Khamis at left-back has provided Arruabarrena with a problem to solve at the back (even if the defender has been woefully off-colour for the national team). Chiefly, that there is no obvious replacement in that position.
Of the candidates to fill in, captain Walid Abbas is most certainly a better fit in the centre of defence, where the left-footed defender should offer vast experience alongside the still-young Khalifa Al Hammadi. Against Gambia, Arruabarrena used Abbas at left-back in the first half, and then Abdulaziz Haikal after the break.
The latter, though, typically plays at right-back and understandably did seem to unbalance the side. Sharjah full-back Alhasan Saleh could be another option but is relatively untested at this level. Arruabarrena therefore has a crucial call to make.
Fortunately for the UAE, there are no such concerns on the opposite flank, as Bandar Al Ahbabi continues to excel for his club, the recently crowned UAE champions Al Ain. For a match of such magnitude, there remains work to be done in Doha this week to settle on the make-up of the defence.
Has Rodolfo Arruabarrena had ample time to get message across?
Although appointed more than three months ago, Arruabarrena has still had little time with the team. The Argentine, experiencing international management for the first time, is undeniably a gifted coach, as his work with Al Wasl and Shabab Al Ahli proved. He guided the former to successive top-three finishes in the league – Wasl’s best performance for a decade – and led the latter to the top of the standings in the 2019/20 season before he was surprisingly dismissed.
Yet Arruabarrena has had 10 days with the UAE before their closing final-round double-header against Iraq and South Korea in March, and another week's training camp just past in Dubai. Thus, the next week with his squad in Doha is vital, after the UAE touched down in the Qatari capital late on Monday.
However, and this is important: the players (and staff) have enjoyed working with Arruabarrena, that enthusiasm enhanced considerably by the 1-0 victory in the Group A finale against South Korea that sealed the play-off spot. The team have bought into the coach’s philosophy; it’s just a question as to whether they’ve had enough time to put it into action ahead of the late dash to Qatar 2022.
How will the players handle the heightened pressure?
It’s worth repeating: the UAE stand two matches from a second appearance at a World Cup (and first since 1990). Get past Australia on Tuesday, and they meet Peru six days later for a place at the global finals. For sure, the significance of the next two weeks is not lost on the team or staff. With that, comes an obvious pressure to perform.
As the final round of qualification unfolded, the UAE appeared affected by what was at stake - for instance, they were far from their best in the penultimate match against Iraq, losing 1-0. There should be great optimism taken, then, from the victory against the unbeaten, albeit already qualified, South Korea; when the UAE needed it most, they claimed a famous win.
The same could be said against Lebanon last November, when Mabkhout’s late, late penalty secured three precious points, handing the UAE their first victory of the final round – at the sixth attempt. In Doha next week, the national team should benefit from the tie taking place on neighbouring and familiar territory, while the Football Association’s provision of 5,000 match tickets ensures the team will enjoy the majority of support at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. The conditions are in their favour. The UAE now need to use them to their advantage.