A shift in formation precipitated a change in fortune. An adjustment in mood, too.
Alberto Zaccheroni switched to a 4-2-3-1 against Laos on Tuesday, the reportedly beleaguered UAE manager forgoing his trusted 3-4-3, and the UAE responded with a first victory in six matches. They won 3-0 in the friendly in Spain, marking the conclusion of their latest training camp. It should have been much more.
Ali Mabkhout scored twice and could have at least doubled his tally. Omar Abdulrahman notched the third, a spectacular strike from around 30 yards that swerved and then dipped, clanging right under the roof of the Laos goal. Ismail Al Hammadi spurned opportunities in either half.
For the first time in 12 matches since Zaccheroni’s appointment almost 12 months ago, the UAE had scored two or more goals in a game. Although Laos were far inferior opponents, ranked 178th in the world by Fifa to the UAE’s 77th, the win was imperative. Not only for the team, but for Zaccheroni as well.
Five days before, the UAE lost 2-0 to a supposedly ill-prepared Trinidad and Tobago. Another friendly, but another defeat, it stretched an unwanted sequence to four losses and one draw from five matches.
It also deepened the discontent towards Zaccheroni. Speculation quickly spread that the Football Association was considering his position. Potential replacements were touted, including former Al Jazira manager Henk ten Cate and current Al Ain manager Zoran Mamic.
However, the FA moved to rubbish the rumours, at the same time publicising their support for Zaccheroni. An Asian Cup winner with Japan in 2011, he has been given a remit through to the conclusion of the next edition, staged in the Emirates, on February 1.
Nonetheless, a more convincing performance on Tuesday was required. Irrespective of Laos’ lowly status or the fact the UAE were expected to dominate, which they did, anything less than victory would have only increased the strain. Perhaps the Italian’s position would have been deemed untenable.
Crucially, it is understood that the FA remains behind its manager, despite reports suggesting otherwise. The players, meanwhile, are said to have voiced their frustration with the formation, a system they felt did little to work to the team’s strengths.
Until Laos, the UAE had scored three goals in 11 matches.
Yet Zaccheroni relented, or he compromised. Now he must build upon what worked in Girona. Next month in Barcelona, at the third of five preparatory training camps for Asian Cup 2019, the national team will face Honduras and Venezuela, statistically far stronger sides to those they tackled these past few months.
The step up in standard is required: the FA has set the target of at least emulating 1996, when the UAE, Asian Cup hosts for the first and thus far only time, finished runners-up. Given the current crop's recent results, that seems some way off.
Time is against them. Some say circumstances, too, with the Asian Cup featuring 24 teams for the first time in its history.
In 1996, there were 12. But a first win in 12 has lifted the pressure somewhat.
And, as each milestone between now and January passes, the UAE will have to battle that burden a little more.