Several Arab teams were back in action on matchday three of the final round of World Cup qualification on Thursday. Only the top two teams from each of the six-team groups qualify automatically for Qatar 2022. Finish third and there are tough play-offs to negotiate.
Here are five things we learned from the latest action.
1. Stop Ali Mabkhout and you stop the UAE
It was never going to be easy to defeat Iran for the first time in 14 official meetings, but the UAE never really seemed to believe they could. The Whites did not play badly in Dubai but lacked a cutting edge. Now they are in real trouble in terms of finishing in the top two.
It was all looking pretty good for the UAE on the hour as Shojae Khalilzadeh was shown the red card, but VAR saved the Iranian defender. Once play restarted, it did not take long for Mehdi Taremi to score what turned out to be the only goal of the game.
What now for the UAE? Just two points from the opening three games is not where they wanted to be and Bert van Marwijk’s team are already five points behind South Korea in the race for that all-important second spot. They have scored just once in three games and it seems that if you stop Ali Mabkhout from scoring then you don’t have to worry. With not much service, the striker has not been that hard to stop.
The only glimmer of light on a gloomy evening is that South Korea travel to Tehran on Tuesday, and given the patchy form of the East Asians and a poor record against Team Melli, Iran will be expected to win. Still, it is hardly encouraging for the UAE to be relying on other results so early in this qualification stage and, regardless of what happens elsewhere, the team have to start winning. Fail to beat Iraq and you feel that it is all over.
2. Syria will be kicking themselves
Syria lost 2-1 in South Korea and it was a fair result — in fact, more than fair since the home team missed a number of chances and should have been out of sight at the break. But Syria stayed in the game and refused to be killed off even after the Taeguk Warriors took the lead early in the second half.
There was always a feeling that Syria would get a chance sooner or later, however, and when Omar Khribin finished beautifully with six minutes remaining, the game should have been over, with the visitors securing a point.
Yet, with a minute remaining, they fell asleep. How else to explain leaving Son Heung-min, Asia’s best player, unmarked just outside the six-yard box? It wasted all the hard work done. And in that moment, a confidence-boosting draw became a disappointing defeat and, more importantly, hopes of the top two — admittedly slim — became almost nonexistent.
3. Iraq and Lebanon cancel each other out
There are 0-0 draws that are entertaining and tense affairs, and then there are 0-0 draws like this one in Doha — a good advert for Asian football it was not. Neither team had scored in the two games going into this encounter and it was obvious why.
Most attacking moves broke down in the midfield area, and while Iraq began to gain the ascendancy in the second half as Lebanon appeared to tire, they never committed enough men forward and never really seemed to believe they could score.
Lebanon were much happier at the final whistle, but had their chances and perhaps will feel they could have got more against a below-par Iraq team.
Iraq lacked creativity, cohesion and intensity. Hopes of the top three, already looking slim, will be close to nonexistent should they lose to the UAE on Tuesday. Judging by recent performances, fans will not be expecting too much.
4. Oman give their all, but now must focus on coming games
It was always going to be tough against an Australian team that had won their last 10 games and so it proved as the Socceroos ran out 3-1 winners.
The fact that the Reds were competitive against Australia was encouraging, as was the fact they were competitive against Japan and Saudi Arabia. Next comes a game that Branko Ivankovic’s men must win. Vietnam are the lowest-ranked team in the group and have lost all three games so far, though they have also been competitive in all of them.
If Oman win at home on Tuesday, they will take on China in the game after, knowing another victory will take the team on to nine points and that may well be enough to go ahead of Japan in third place.
Nobody is expecting Oman to go all the way to Qatar, but if the team can stay competitive until the latter stages, that will be a sign of progress and something to celebrate.
5. Saudi Arabia apart, it has not been a great Arab start
OK, there are four Arab teams in Group A who play each other and then have to face the Asian giants of Iran and South Korea. It is not the lack of points that is a big concern but the style of play.
Sometimes it seems as if the likes of Iraq and Syria, who do have obvious challenges to overcome, give the big boys too much respect. Indeed, if the pair had been a little more ambitious in Korea, they could have come away with something substantial.
There is enough talent not to be setting stalls out just to avoid defeat and if attitudes can change then so can results.