A second successive defeat for the UAE brought with it criticism for Bert van Marwijk.
Gone went the early optimism engendered by his March appointment. Rather swiftly, the doubts surfaced.
Four competitive matches into his reign, the Dutchman was deemed, in the court of public opinion at least, as perhaps not the right man for the job, after all.
Those two opening World Cup qualification victories, achieved in September in Malaysia and October at home to Indonesia, suddenly felt an eternity ago.
Twin losses, first away to Thailand last month and then two weeks ago against Vietnam in Hanoi, eroded the sheen of what was billed a lustrous new era for the UAE national team. Almost in an instant, positively gave way to pessimism.
Irrespective of the commendable work supplied at Saudi Arabia. Despite Van Marwijk’s obvious understanding of football in the region and what it takes to guide a Gulf country to the World Cup.
Regardless of that, although Thailand was a hugely disappointing display, the UAE had been actually quite good last time out. Against the fast-improving Vietnam, they played almost 60 minutes with 10 men.
Yet still the critics circled. The theory went that Van Marwijk omitted from the squad seemingly obvious choices. That he relied too heavily on much the same line-up. That he did not spend enough time attending Arabian Gulf League matches.
However, the reaction to consecutive defeats feels more than a little knee-jerk. Installed in March, and without his first squad get-together until July, Van Marwijk’s priority was always to overhaul an ageing and stagnating group.
In the opening qualifier – the 2-1, come-from-behind, victory in Malaysia – his starting XI included four players aged 23 and under. Mohammed Al Attas, 22, and Khalifa Al Hammadi, 20, partnered each other in the centre of defence.
In Kuala Lumpur, three of that quartet made competitive debuts, joined also by Khalil Ibrahim, the Al Wahda winger. There would later be competitive bows for Abdullah Ramadan, the highly rated Al Jazira midfielder, and forward Zayed Al Ameri, his clubmate. They’re aged 21 and 22, respectively.
Also, Van Marwijk has had to slowly integrate Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, two of the team’s long-established “Big Three”.
The other, Ali Mabkhout, burst out of the blocks in qualification, scoring six goals in three games. In doing so, he became the country’s all-time leading marksman.
But Mabkhout missed the match in Hanoi through suspension. Subsequently, the UAE missed his threat on the counter.
Halfway through qualification, Van Marwijk’s men lie fourth in the five-team Group G, although they've played a game less than their rivals. Still, their position is a concern - only the winners are guaranteed to progress to the third round – and patently places more emphasis on their remaining fixtures. That three of those four take place at home offers some comfort.
Evidently, Van Marwijk’s plan continues to be a work in progress. Patience must therefore be preached.
There was never a quick fix, a rapid remedy to a squad that had crept some way past its best, even if they reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup earlier this year. Even if the UAE were regarded as group favourites when qualification began two months ago.
There should be a calmness, too, around the upcoming Gulf Cup of Nations campaign. The UAE were confirmed for the competition two weeks ago; they begin their bid for a third regional crown on Tuesday, against Yemen in Doha.
Runners-up in 2018, the UAE would do well to emulate that this time around. But the tournament, however hastily arranged, should be used to strengthen Van Marwijk’s strategy, to get across his message, to see how his players fare in that competitive and compacted environment.
Abdulrahman’s absence is a blow, deemed not ready for the demands of tournament football following his recent return from 11 months off. The UAE are also without Walid Abbas and Ali Salmeen.
Yet an opportunity has been presented for others. For Van Marwijk, as well, although admittedly the conditions are not ideal.
Whatever transpires, the UAE manager, still finding his feet, needs to be afforded time. Undoubtedly, Van Marwijk has pedigree. He must be allowed to prove it.