RIYADH: It did not turn out to be quite the day of high drama that fans in Asia had expected but the final matchday in the second round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup was, overall, a good one for Arab football.
In the end the big boys made it. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iraq all got through to the third stage that kicks off in September. They will be joined by Oman, Syria, and Lebanon.
To have six Arab teams in the final 12 is an improvement on five from four years ago and there were five things we learned from an interesting, rather than a dramatic, evening.
1. Al-Faraj stepped up to ensure Al-Dawsari was not missed
There were some concerns that Saudi Arabia would miss their talismanic captain Salem Al-Dawsari who was suspended for the top-of-the-group clash with Uzbekistan.
But there was no need to worry. Salman Al-Faraj donned the armband and then the soon-to-be 32-year-old rolled back the years to end the dreams of the central Asians. He timed his run perfectly after 32 minutes and finished from just inside the area. His second goal came five minutes later, a flick from close range after an incisive move and another well-timed run.
At that moment, Saudi Arabia could relax in the knowledge that they were going through to the third round of qualification.
There is work still to do — even against Uzbekistan the Green Falcons were a little sloppy — but before that, coach Herve Renard can reflect on a job well done.
2. Mabkhout grabbed headlines but Abdullah Ramadan emerged as genuine star
Bert van Marwijk should be placing a call to Al-Jazira today to thank the UAE champions for having Abdullah Ramadan and Ali Mabkhout in their team. The understanding between the 23-year-old midfielder and the 30-year-old goal machine is clear for all to see but stopping it working to beautiful effect is another question for defenders entirely.
Mabkhout was not the player on the receiving end of a perfect ball over the top that was finished to break the deadlock after 32 minutes. That was Ali Salmeen. Ramadan’s ball soon after also caused problems and led to a penalty that Mabkhout converted to take his total for the round to an impressive 11.
There are tougher tests to come but when the pressure was on, the UAE delivered, helped by their new midfield star.
3. Iraq coach Katanec needs to find a little more variety
It will not matter too much to Iraq that they only just squeezed into the final round of qualification, just being there is what matters. There should be a little concern however that when Iraq came up against one of the best teams in Asia, the Lions of Mesopotamia fell short.
Perhaps the situation did not help as Iraq knew that a draw would be enough. Manager Srecko Katanec went with a defensive formation and mindset but even after Sardar Azmoun gave Iran a first-half lead, there was not enough flexibility, urgency, or perhaps even desire to get the goal that would have given Iraq top spot and a guaranteed place in the third round.
The Slovenian coach has plenty of talent at his disposal and if he can find the best way to use it then Iraq have a chance.
4. Oman give late coach Verbeek a fitting tribute
The men from Muscat glided into the third round almost unnoticed, perhaps because their group contained World Cup hosts Qatar and so there was little of the top-two battle that could be found in other groups. Yet the Reds will be in the final 12 and it is a great tribute to the late Pim Verbeek.
The Dutchman, former head coach of South Korea and Australia, was in charge of Oman from 2016 to the 2019 Asian Cup, after which illness forced him to leave a job and country he loved, and the same cancer sadly took his life later the same year.
He would also have loved the sight of Oman in the third round of qualification and taking on the big boys in the big games.
5. Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen show serious heart
All three of these teams have had to deal with well-publicized off-the-pitch issues. Lebanon actually made it through to the final 12 though and will be saying a little thank you to Saudi Arabia for beating Uzbekistan on the final day for that.
It is amazing that the Cedars have come so far once again and no team in the next round will relish going to Beirut.
Palestine ended up finishing third in a competitive group and, again, given the trouble the team has experienced just holding training camps and gathering the squad, as well as everything else that has had to be dealt with in recent weeks and months, that is a fantastic achievement.
Yemen finishing bottom was no disgrace whatsoever given that there has been no competitive football to speak of in the country for seven years. To draw with Saudi Arabia and lose 1-0 to Uzbekistan is an achievement that matches any of the successful dozen.