x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

End of the line for Katanec?

Criticism of his players fuels the notion that Srecko Katanec is one poor result away from losing his job as UAE coach.

Srecko Katanec, far left, has presided over 12 wins, seven draws and eight defeats so far during his tenure as UAE coach.
Srecko Katanec, far left, has presided over 12 wins, seven draws and eight defeats so far during his tenure as UAE coach.

For a man standing on a precipice, Srecko Katanec showed no fear yesterday. He was a bit combative in a session with reporters, as is his style, but in no way did he betray the anxiety of a coach contemplating a near future with his career dashed upon the rocks.

Is he simply a confident man? Or does the prospect of a UAE defeat in a World Cup qualifier against Lebanon tonight seem so remote as to not be worthy of consideration, let alone agitation?

Katanec has been in his job as coach of the national team for more than two years. A case can be made that the angular Slovene has not done a bad job.

The senior team have won 12 games, drawn seven and lost eight in 27 internationals on his watch, and that seems a solid rate of return for a side that had fallen to No 124 in the Fifa world rankings - the worst position in UAE history - a month before he took charge of his first game.

National team highlights since then include the final touches on a successful qualifying campaign for the 2011 Asian Cup, friendly victories over European sides such as the Czech Republic and Moldova, and a Fifa ranking of No 88 last summer (before slipping back to 108).

Under the stewardship of the former Sampdoria and Stuttgart centre-back, the UAE have been tough to break down. They have conceded only 25 goals in those 27 matches, a rate of less than one per contest, which is even lower if two own goals from the Asian Cup last January are subtracted.

Katanec teams tend to keep games close, which is helpful because his tenure comes at a time when the country boasts few attacking players of note. One of them, Ismail Matar, will miss his sixth consecutive international game tonight as he recuperates from knee surgery.

Further, Katanec is correct when he says that he has changed nearly the entire national team in two years, replacing jaded and ineffective veterans with younger men of significant potential, if little experience.

Yet the notion that Katanec is one poor result from being replaced seems to be gathering momentum. Another case can be made that he has been given enough rope now to be hanged.

The most damaging lines on his CV are the UAE's results in competitive matches: a 3-1 victory and three games without scoring in the Gulf Cup last year; no goals and one point in the Asian Cup eight months ago; and the damaging 3-2 home defeat to Kuwait in World Cup qualifying this past Friday.

Some questionable remarks are in the mix, as well. After crashing out of the Asian Cup he said that the UAE's professional league bore some responsibility for his team not scoring in Qatar because of its preference of expatriates in the attack, leaving him to "choose national team strikers from players who start league matches from the bench".

Last weekend, after the Kuwait game, he charged that several members of the national side "sat at home" for three weeks between national team duties and asked how he could be expected to win with a team like that.

Katanec, 48, took Slovenia to the 2002 World Cup finals, and he started as a Champions League finalist for Sampdoria against Barcelona a decade before, so it is not as if he does not know about helping (and leading) teams at the highest levels of the game.

But the chatter in the UAE football community portrays the current coach as arrogant, and also suggests he is unpopular with his players.

Certainly, the fastest way for an expatriate coach to lose support in an overseas posting is to criticise local players, and Katanec ticked that box last Friday.

On the eve of the game in Beirut, however, he seems to retain the support of the man whose opinion matters most, Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, the president of the Football Association.

Katanec is the highest-profile employee Al Rumaithi has hired, and the backing of the boss can go far. Still, Lebanon are a very small fish in a very large Asian pond; that they have lasted into the third round of the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) qualifying is a surprise.

Yet they remain the sort of side that anyone who plans to advance to the fourth and final round of AFC qualifying must take three points from at every opportunity.

Something less than victory here for the UAE tonight could all but end the country's 2014 World Cup bid, and that could be the nudge that sends Katanec over the edge.


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