Ajdin Hrustic’s late volley deflected off Ali Salmeen, and the UAE’s Great Hope was dashed.
Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s side were beaten 2-1 by Australia at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan on Tuesday, Australia just about doing enough, the perennial World Cup participants thrust to within one match of a fifth successive global finals.
All the way until that point, it felt almost close enough for the UAE to touch. Having not ventured this far into qualification in more than two decades, they were behind and then level and, with six minutes remaining, behind again. This time, there would be no rapid response.
So Australia emerged triumphant, when they simply outlasted the UAE to see the job through. Their opponents collapsed en masse at the final whistle, their World Cup dream crumbled even if they did put up a heck of a fight.
Harib Abdallah, lively winger and the game's outstanding combatant, departed in floods of tears. No matter the effort given - and it was mighty - it will surely be a while before the disappointment washes off.
It was Abdallah who supplied the spark throughout the first half. He had its only two real chances. Both came after he was set free down the left, and as the angle narrowed considerably, Abdallah could only fire straight at Mathew Ryan in the Australia goalkeeper. To be fair, the Real Sociedad No 1 had left no gap at his near post, with the second save coming via a sturdy left hand.
At the other end, Australia threatened in the loosest sense of the word. Save for a wicked Craig Goodwin free-kick that towering centre-back Kye Rowles failed to connect properly with, the UAE were largely untroubled.
Right at the beginning of the second half, the same combination produced the same result: Abdallah surged forward, then Ryan repelled him down low. Moments later, the contest had lift-off. Martin Boyle escaped down the right, pulled the ball across the UAE six-yard box and, reacting quickest, Jackson Irvine had the most straightforward of finishes.
To their immense credit, though, the UAE responded almost immediately. On 57 minutes, Abdallah – who else? – raced forward and crossed into the Australia area. The ball evaded Ali Mabkhout, but fell invitingly at Caio Canedo’s feet, leaving the forward to smash high into the net. In a flash, the UAE were level. Four minutes separated the respective goals.
Yet, nearly as swiftly, Australia spurned a golden chance to seize back the lead. However, the unmarked Goodwin somehow side-footed the ball over the crossbar. The UAE breathed a collective sigh of relief. On 79 minutes, Khaled Essa saved low from Boyle’s half volley.
Then, the hammer blow. An Australia corner fell to Hrustic on the edge of the area, with the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder’s thumping volley cannoning off Salmeen and beyond Essa. The UAE had six minutes to rescue their World Cup dream.
Arruabarrena threw on Omar Abdulrahman at the death, the 2016 Asian player of the year long past his vintage and still some way short of full fitness, but it had little effect. His last misplaced pass signalled the end of the match.
The end of the game and the termination of the UAE’s World Cup hopes. They should hold heads high following a commendable effort. It was, though, to be in vain.