Friday was another good evening for Arab teams in the penultimate set of matches in the second round of 2022 World Cup qualification. The big teams all won but then so did most of their group rivals to set up a what is sure to be tense final matchday.
Here are five things we learned.
1. Relief for Renard and all of Saudi Arabia
A 3-0 win for Saudi sounds comprehensive but it was scoreless heading into the final 10 minutes and Singapore, determined and resolute in defense and unusually cynical in terms of running down the clock, had just hit the post. There were nerves in Riyadh, and fans who had expected a regulation win against a team that had lost 5-0 to Uzbekistan and 4-0 to Palestine in the past eight days were suddenly checking the rankings of the best performing second-placed teams.
Saudi Arabia were starting to run out of ideas — and not beating Singapore would have been a huge blow to confidence as well as chances of reaching the next round — when the main man Salem Al-Dawsari popped up with a goal six minutes from time. Then the fleet-footed Fahad Al-Muwallad took advantage of a mistake and all was well with the world. He helped spare coach Renard a very difficult time with one consolation being that Uzbekistan also struggled in their Yemen clash. It will be forgotten if the right result is collected against Uzbekistan on Tuesday.
2. As expected, it comes down to the final game for UAE
After successive defeats at the hands of Thailand and Vietnam all the way back in 2019, the UAE would surely have settled for going into the final game still in control of its own destiny and that is the case.
Once again, Ali Mabkhout and Fabio Lima got on the scoresheet in a comprehensive 5-0 win against Indonesia to make it three wins out of three in the last week or so. Vietnam will be a tougher test of course and the two-point advantage the Golden Stars have is crucial. It is not just that the Reds can afford to draw, but that position means that Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo, Mr. Pragmatism, will love nothing more than being able to sit back, let the UAE do the running and hit on the counter-attack. It could be a frustrating 90 minutes for the Emiratis.
3. Iraq set themselves up for a huge test
The 2007 Asian champions have slipped under the radar a little but have been in great form and the 1-0 win over Hong Kong was a 19th game without defeat. It wasn’t a vintage performance, but sometimes there are games in which you just have to win by any means and this was one of those. Iraq has become adept at grinding out results and may need to do something similar against Iran on Tuesday.
Despite the great form, Iraq will face their toughest test for years and they may well need that two-point advantage if they are to finish first — though it may well be the case that second will be enough. Iran has won all three of their games in Bahrain and have real momentum. They also have players such as Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi who are coming off great European seasons and look like scoring every time they get the ball. It is a huge game for both teams.
4. Yemen did Saudi Arabia, and themselves, proud
If Uzbekistan thought all it had to do was turn up against Yemen to take the three points it was very much mistaken. The veteran defender Ahmed Wahid was everywhere in the middle, intercepting, instructing and tackling and just using all of his 35 years to keep the men from Sanaa in the game. Yemen has played little football in recent years due to the conflict in the country but pushed Uzbekistan all the way. Indeed, the Central Asians only won due to a first-half penalty.
The stage is not over for Yemen. The team may be bottom of the group but if they defeat Palestine on Tuesday then they will finish third behind Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, two powers of the Asian game, and that will be a success and something to be proud of. It would also be a huge step toward another appearance at the Asian Cup.
5. Kuwait and Jordan trip each other up
These two second-tier West Asian powers have had a disappointing campaign so far with neither really suggesting they are ready to move up to the next level; Kuwait especially because it has had home advantage since the second round resumed but failed to score a single goal against Australia and Jordan.
The 0-0 draw between the two on Friday has surely ended the hopes of both teams and even if Jordan defeat Australia on Tuesday, it is unlikely that it will be enough to finish as one of the best four runners-up. Both will look back and wonder if they could not have done more.