DUBAI: Thursday evening was a good one for Arab teams as more returned to international action after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) suspensions, but all still have work to do if they are to progress to the third round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
While Japan have already booked their place in the next round and Australia are as good as there, it is likely to go down to the wire for the Arab countries.
With a striker such as Ali Mabkhout, the UAE should not be cutting it so fine. The 30-year-old deserves to show his skills on the biggest stage of all. He was sublime once again for his country as he surpassed Lionel Messi’s international tally on Thursday to become the second-highest active goal-getter with 73 conversions behind Cristiano Ronaldo. More importantly however, his two goals helped the UAE to a much-needed 4-0 win over Malaysia.
The pressure was really on as only the eight group winners and the best four runners-up get a place in the next stage.
UAE coach Bert van Marwijk said beforehand that the team needed to win all four remaining games to be sure of finishing first in Group G — now three are needed.
When you have Mabkhout, perhaps the most under-rated striker in Asia, then you always have a chance. After just 19 minutes against Malaysia, Al-Jazira team-mate Abdullah Ramadan floated a perfect ball over the top from deep, but Mabkhout still had work to do. The run was timed perfectly, the control was equally immaculate, and the finish over the goalkeeper sublime.
Three goals in the final minutes boosted the host’s goal difference and, in truth, 4-0 was a more accurate reflection of the way the game went. Fabio de Lima curled home a beauty on his debut and there was Mabkhout to add his second inside stoppage time, running from the halfway line to finish from the right corner of the area. There were still enough seconds for Lima to add his second and his team’s fourth.
With Thailand drawing 2-2 with bottom team Indonesia, the UAE moved into second, two points behind Vietnam. With just two points separating the top four, Group G is very tight indeed.
On Monday, Vietnam takes on bottom team Indonesia and a win is expected, while the UAE will have to do the same against a Thai team that also needs the points if dreams of a place in the final 12 are to stay alive.
Van Marwijk said: “We made a strong return to the qualifiers after a long hiatus. The important thing is that we continue to perform and win in the rest of our matches, to achieve our goal of reaching the next stage, and qualify for the World Cup. We have to forget about today’s victory.”
Thailand will be sure not to forget about Mabkhout. Monday’s clash will be huge.
Group C is almost as hard to call. Bahrain moved above the inactive Iraq with an 8-0 thrashing of Cambodia. With 12 points from six games, the men from Manama have played a game more than Iraq in second and Iran in third and have a two and three-point advantage over their rivals.
It is going to go down to the wire especially as Iran, who lost their previous two games, returned to winning ways with a 3-1 win over Hong Kong to keep their hopes of a third successive appearance at the World Cup alive. Iran and Bahrain — there is no love lost in this football rivalry — meet on Monday in what is another huge game.
Kuwait were the one Arab team that failed to take all three points, losing 3-0 at home to Australia. Early goals from Mat Leckie and Jackson Irvine put the Socceroos in control and while Kuwait did not play badly, it left too much of a mountain to climb.
Top spot was already a long shot for the hosts but losing was a blow for their hopes of finishing second, never mind finishing as one of the four best runners-up.
Australia now have five from five and have fingers and toes in the next stage. Kuwait have 10 points, along with Jordan, but have now played a game more. The June 11 clash between Jordan and Kuwait will likely decide who finishes second.
After losing 5-0 to Saudi Arabia in March, Palestine roared back into form with an impressive 4-0 beating of Singapore. A pair of penalties inside the first half-hour, both converted by Taber Sayem, sandwiched a strike from Oday Dabbagh and it all meant that the game was over as a contest. The win takes Palestine off bottom to be replaced by Yemen, in action against Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
As impressive as Palestine and Bahrain were, the night belonged to Mabkhout. He deserves to be seen by a global audience, but it will take more results similar to Thursday’s to keep that dream alive.