Injury-marred and light on any real hope of making next year’s World Cup, the UAE’s road to Russia ended in double disappointment on Tuesday.
Requiring victory in their Group B finale against Iraq in Jordan, even just to pile pressure on Saudi Arabia later in the night, Edgardo Bauza’s makeshift side could not even manage that.
They went down at the Amman International Stadium. With the 1-0 loss, so too any chance of reaching the finals next summer. The wait for that second World Cup appearance drags on.
To be fair, it always represented a long shot. Australia's earlier victory against Thailand – a one-sided but nervy affair – meant the UAE had only third place in the group and a play-off spot to aim for. Even still, a point for the Saudis in their home tussle with Japan would consign their West Asian rivals to fourth.
Eventually, the four-time World Cup participants defeated group winners Japan 1-0 in Jeddah to trade positions with Australia. Taking second, and consigning Australia to a play-off against Syria next month, they can now look forward to a first World Cup appearance since 2006.
The UAE can look to another period of introspection and dissection. Although already faint, they had entered the match against Iraq with some hope at least. They departed with a fifth defeat in 10 qualifiers.
It was Ayman Hussein who condemned Bauza's boys to that, the striker bagging a first-half header. Iraq, stuck to fifth in the standings and therefore with little but professional pride to play for, concluded their campaign on a high. The UAE did the opposite.
In truth, their final assignment was never going to be straightforward. They were without a plethora of first-team regulars, including Asian player of the year Omar Abdulrahman and centre-back Ismail Ahmed, both injured. Ismail Al Hammadi and Majed Hassan have been long-term absentees. Striker Ali Mabkhout, midfielder Khamis Esmail and left-back Mahmoud Khamis were suspended.
Twelve minutes in against Iraq, right-back Mohammed Fawzi limped off. Within 16 minutes of that, the UAE were 1-0 down. A neat passing move worked its way across the edge of away side’s penalty area, then finished when Hussein powered a header high past Khalid Essa in the UAE goal. He took off towards the corner flag in celebration. With their World Cup quest crumbling, the UAE players plodded back to the centre circle.
It took until shortly before half time for them to muster any sort of response. Finally, Ahmed Khalil tested Iraq goalkeeper Mohammed Gassid, thrashing a long-range effort towards goal only for it to be expertly repelled. Overall, though, Khalil offered very little, the hero against the Saudis last week nowhere near his vintage seven days on.
With the UAE forward off-form, Gassid was rarely threatened thereafter. Substitute Tariq Ahmed tried his luck from the edge of the Iraq area, but it was collected easily. Khalil floated a free kick wide.
As the match wore on, the UAE ran out of ideas and ran out of steam. When the final whistle blew, they had run out of road, as well. In the end, plotting a route to Russia proved beyond them.