After 19 months, or 567 days, or better still, three different managers, finally the UAE’s mission towards World Cup 2022 resumes.
A condensed but crucial 13-day window is about to unspool in Dubai, through four crunch matches amid the heavy June heat and the pressure to turn around a flagging second-round campaign. The target is clear: keep alive hopes of a second World Cup appearance.
Despite the period between the hiatus in November 2019 and now, when everything for everybody feels entirely different, the UAE find themselves in exactly the same spot: fourth in Group G, trailing frontrunners Vietnam by five points.
With only the group winners progressing automatically to the third and final round on the road to Qatar, a maximum return could quite possibly be required. That programme begins at Zabeel Stadium on Thursday; victory against second-placed Malaysia a must.
Although the qualification picture has preserved, a by-product of a pandemic as postponements and unpredictability took root, for the national team the landscape within has changed significantly.
OK, Bert van Marwijk has departed and returned, his tenure separated by more than a year and the short-lived appointments of Ivan Jovanovic and Jorge Luis Pinto. Jovanovic did not manage a match. Pinto was apparently too abrasive, too set in his ways.
So, Van Marwijk came back in December and immediately lifted the gloom. Sense prevailed; chiefly, that the best candidate to guide the UAE's faltering World Cup ambitions would be the man who led Saudi Arabia to the most recent global finals.
With the advantage of knowing the players and the set-up's inner workings – the Dutchman's first stint lasted nine months, from March 2019 – Van Marwijk has more or less picked up where he left off. Four camps have come and gone. In the past two friendlies, the UAE have defeated India 6-0 and Jordan 5-1. Nothing, though, quite compares to the stresses and strains of World Cup qualification.
The make-up of the squad has altered, too. Sebastian Tagliabue, Fabio De Lima and Caio Canedo have been naturalised in the interim, supplying Van Marwijk with substantially more options in attack. Previously, the UAE were ultra-reliant on Ali Mabkhout; the country’s all-time leading scorer has struck six of the national team’s eight goals in qualification thus far.
Rather fortunately, Mabkhout is among the constants straddling Van Marwijk’s incumbencies: he arrives to these fourth matches in fine fettle, a recently crowned UAE champion with Al Jazira, owner of the 2020/21 Arabian Gulf League’s golden boot.
In fact, in his past 15 appearances for club and country, Mabkhout has scored 24 goals. His treble last week against Jordan marked a fifth hat-trick in that time. His budding partnership, in particular, with De Lima promises much.
A major marker of Van Marwijk pre-departure was his trust in youth. Defenders Khalifa Al Hammadi and Mohammed Al Attas, midfielder Abdullah Ramadan and forward Ali Saleh were thrust into the first batch of qualifiers.
They have remained, but with another full domestic season under their belts. Al Hammadi, Al Attas and Ramadan have since become league winners. Then there is Shaheen Abdulrahman, Sharjah’s title-winning captain of the 2018/19 season, for too long excluded but now seemingly certain to bring his experience and expertise to central defence.
In Ramadan, the UAE possess an adroit midfielder who has developed considerably since debuting against Vietnam in 2019. He is mightily talented, a conductor of play.
What’s more, Ramadan’s eye for a threaded pass and strong connection with Mabkhout goes some way to tempering the continued absence of Omar Abdulrahman. The 2016 Asian player of the year, brought back by Van Marwijk in 2019, is still routing his way back to full fitness.
All that said, the UAE have a hefty challenge in front. Huge ground must be made up – even if they hold a game in hand over the group. That starts on Thursday, against Malaysia, when nothing but a win will suffice.
Van Marwijk’s men took the corresponding encounter 2-1 in Kuala Lumpur, way back when, before the successive defeats to Thailand and Vietnam, the pandemic and the postponements, the multiple managerial shake-ups. All that matters now, really, is dragging the mission to World Cup 2022 back on track.