A fourth victory from four, the final of the quartet right when needed most, and the UAE strode forth.
The national team bound into the third stage of World Cup qualification, defeating Group G frontrunners Vietnam in the decider in Dubai and vaulting through as the top side in the standings. A September date on the road to Qatar 2022 awaits.
From five points adrift, way back when and through four must-win matches in 13 days, to one point out in front. In the end, when the results were totted up and the pandemic-postponed second round finally put to bed, that is all that mattered. With a 3-2 triumph at the Zabeel Stadium, Dubai, on Tuesday, the UAE’s World Cup dream had been salvaged.
The two Alis, Salmeen and Mabkhout, and a diving header from left-back Mahmoud Khamis settled it, ably supplied by the burgeoning Abdullah Ramadan and Bert van Marwijk’s shrewd move to bring in Majed Hassan to thicken his midfield.
Until this encounter, Vietnam had conceded only two goals in seven matches in this round. Yet, the group’s meanest defence sprung a leak when staring down its most prolific attack; the UAE’s treble took their tally for the campaign to 23. All the while, their backline provided the platform for progression, too.
Credit must go to Van Marwijk and his men, who survived the delays and the December 2019 dismissal to get the job done. Victory secure, a new hope emerged with the newish generation on a suffocating evening in the emirate. Breath belatedly caught, the UAE can go again.
The UAE’s World Cup hopes had come down to this, a win necessary to advance as group winners. In the end, the three points confirmed the UAE’s position as one of Asia’s leading 12 teams heading into a final phase, the carrot a second global Finals in the country’s history. Vietnam, for their part, had never before made those latter stages.
But the UAE dashed all aspirations of automatic qualification. After Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, were seen off in two weeks by an aggregate score of 12-1, they displayed their mettle and booming imagination to prevail.
The UAE dominated possession throughout the opening exchanges, seemingly safe in the knowledge they could inflict Vietnam’s first loss in eight competitive fixtures, and then broke their resolve.
Ramadan again rose to the occasion, scooping a delicious ball over the static opposition defence on 32 minutes to set free Salmeen. Typically stationed at the base of midfield, the Al Wasl man controlled the ball beautifully and finished just as well past Bui Tan Truong in the Vietnam net. The hosts, and the home support that crammed inside the allotted 30 per cent capacity, had lift off.
Within six minutes, they were full-throttle towards Round 3. Again, Ramadan was the instigator, the Al Jazira midfielder’s pass forcing Truong to trip Khalil Ibrahim right on the byline. Penalty awarded, Mabkhout strutted forward and stroked home from the spot. The country’s all-time record scorer, already out in front in the qualifier goal charts, climbed to 11.
Like Mabkhout, his side were well worth the lead. They increased it five minutes into the second half. The scorer felt as unlikely as the execution, Khamis pouncing on Fabio De Lima’s parried header to throw himself at the ball and nod into the empty goal.
The UAE had three, Vietnam’s night was run. That corresponding clash, a lifetime ago in November 2019 and before the pandemic pinched the football calendar, had gone to the South-East Asians.
Then, out of nowhere, they pulled two back. With five minutes remaining, forward Nguyen Tien Linh surged free to finish past Ali Khaseif; ditto substitute Tran Minh Vuong in injury time. But Vietnam had leapt to life way too late.
A penny, then, for the thoughts of Park Hang-seo, the team's manager made to sweat through the game from the stands following his one-match touchline ban.
Park’s troubles should be tempered, though, by Vietnam’s progression as one of the round's five best runners-up. In contrast, the UAE required no such calculation or counting upon results in other groups. Pool winners, they rendered redundant the myriad pre-match permutations.
For now and across maybe the next nine months, at least, the quest to Qatar 2022 gets renewed force.