DUBAI: For fans of the UAE national team, it was meant to be a bold new beginning for coach and players. It ended up being a reminder of absent friends.
Jorge Luis Pinto’s bow in the 2-1 loss in this downbeat Dubai friendly against Uzbekistan was, sadly, not worth the wait.
The UAE had not played a single international match this year due to the coronavirus crisis and the resulting halt of all sporting activity across the world. In April, the previous coach of the national team, the Serbian Ivan Jovanovic, was let go without taking charge of a single match and replaced by the Colombian coach.
Pinto is now tasked with rescuing the UAE’s faltering 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
After a decent start to round 2 of the qualifying campaign, two defeats last year - 2-1 defeat in Thailand and 1-0 in Vietnam – cost the Dutchman Bert van Marwijk his job and led to the ill-fated Jovanovic appointment. The UAE now sit fourth in the Group G (five points behind leaders Vietnam), with one game in hand over the teams above them. The UAE’s fate remains in their own hands, but the new coach has little margin for error.
Last night, Pinto needed to hit the ground running, and for his first outing, he had the luxury of selecting two South American players who had been granted UAE citizenship earlier this year, Al Nasr’s Sebastian Tagliabue of Argentina and Al Wasl’s Fabio Lima of Brazil.
For many Emirati fans, their drafting, alongside another Brazilian, Caio Canedo of Al Ain, was seen as a quick fix for the national team’s critical predicament, but Pinto would have welcomed the extra firepower they would bring to the attack nonetheless.
On the downside, arguably the UAE’s three most trusted stars were unavailable.
And it showed. No Omar Abdulrahman, no Ali Mabkhout, no Ahmed Khalil. No party.
From the first whistle, the new-look team, a mix of old, young and newly nationalized players, looked disjointed and lacking in energy, despite several recent training camps.
Uzbekistan’s players, understandably having played more club football in recent months, looked fitter, quicker and sharper on the ball.
For half an hour, little of note happened. After 10 minutes, UAE keeper Khaled Issa blocked a shot from the excellent Igor Sergeev after a mistake in the home defense. It would not be the last time he’d trouble the UAE rearguard.
Fleetingly the pace of Fabio Lima on the left and Al Wahda’s Khalil Ibrahim on the right hinted at Pinto’s gameplay; the two wingers, flanking Al Jazira playmaker Khalfan Mubarak, supporting Tagliabue at the head of the UAE attack. Ibrahim almost broke the deadlock on 18 minutes but after a superb run his clipped shot rolled harmlessly past the far post.
Tagliabue, however, was barely involved at all, and at the other end, the dominant visitors adopted a policy of shoot on sight, though most efforts wildly missed the target. In every sense, this was a dismal spectacle for anyone who tuned in from the comfort of their living rooms.
When the UAE finally awoke from their slumber as the first half approached its end, Khalid Bawazir’s forceful run resulted in a free-kick but Lima’s effort wastefully hit the wall.
The second half brought no improvement from the Emirati team. Only three minutes after the break, a mistake by Khamis Ismail in the UAE defense allowed Sergeev to steal in and score past Essa.
Ahmed Al Attas of Shabab Al Ahli replaced Al Ain’s Ahmed Barman in the second half and introduced a semblance of energy and passion, but it was not enough to raise the rest of his teammates out of their lethargy.
The introduction of veteran Al Ain defender Ismail Ahmed evoked memories of the Golden Generation that charmed the watching world at the 2012 London Olympics, won the 2013 Gulf Cup in Bahrain and finished third at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
Sadly, despite the presence of fellow defender Khalid Ismail and goalkeeper Essa, this team bore little to no semblance to Mahdi Ali’s swashbuckling team of the first half of the 2010s.
Any inspiration, on the pitch or from the bench, would have been welcome, but it was hard to see where it would come from. At least from the home team.
Uzbekistan however, had one last party piece, Sergeev scoring superbly with a left-foot drive from outside the penalty area five minutes from ull time.
There was still time for Tagliabue to get off the mark on his UAE debut after he converted a 90th minute penalty awarded for handball.
The Argentine looked pleased to at least end a hugely disappointing night with a goal, but though it gave the result some respectability, Pinto will know that there were very few positive signs to come out of this match.
In fairness, the Colombian coach will have legitimate reasons for his new team’s poor showing. Some of the players have hardly played any competitive football in almost a year, and the two newcomers will need time to bed in, as will some of the younger, fringe players.
Unfortunately, time is the one luxury Pinto does not have.
With all eyes on the return of international football to the emirates, his new team, with an average age of over 29 years at kick off, failed to deliver. Thoughts have inevitably turned to the old guard of
Abdulrahman and co. Pinto has some big decisions to make in the coming months.