Argentine arrived too late to rescue the national team's hopes of reaching Russia 2018 and while there are solid foundations for him to work with, there is plenty to be done.
Edgardo Bauza blameless for UAE's World Cup campaign but hard work starts now to build for future
Right from the outset, Edgardo Bauza understood what lay ahead.
Appointed in May, the Argentine was set the remit of rescuing the UAE’s spluttering World Cup bid. The team had been beaten in the March double-header by Japan and Australia, leaving them anchored to fourth in Group B, seven points off the automatic qualification spots. Mahdi Ali, coach and confidant to the majority of the squad for the best part of a decade, resigned post-match in Sydney.
With the UAE low on confidence and low on chances, Bauza was brought in - belatedly - and tasked with making an improbable mission seem possible.
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“It is difficult, but mathematically, it is still achievable,” he said at his introductory press conference. “We will try to win all our remaining three games. Of course, it is difficult because it just doesn’t depend on my team, it depends on other results.”
And so it proved. Too difficult, too unlikely. It took only Bauza’s first competitive match in charge to confirm that, when the UAE drew the first of those three must-win games. Against Thailand, the group’s bottom side, they scored in injury time to snatch a point.
Come Tuesday’s finale against Iraq, somehow the UAE retained a glimmer of hope, secured by that excellent victory against Saudi Arabia in Al Ain last week. Ultimately, though, it was in vain.
But Bauza always suspected that it would be. He expected it even. Installed to turn around a near-futile forage, his appointment always felt more for what came after the World Cup campaign than the campaign itself.
He conceded as much in May. His contract, through to the conclusion of the 2019 Asian Cup, only reinforced that.
"We are all on the same page," Bauza had said. "The UAE FA president, the directors and I. We are not thinking only about the three games, but also long-term. It's a long-term project.”
If it seemed he was surrendering somewhat to the difficulty of the World Cup situation, it was understandable. Bauza was not to blame. The damage had already been done. Done, to some degree, in that the UAE failed to win their group in the second round of qualification, meaning for the final phase they were pitted alongside Japan, Australia and the Saudis.
Done, most certainly, by the decision to persevere with Mahdi Ali after the comprehensive and costly defeat to Saudi Arabia in Jeddah last October. Within one month, the UAE manager had asked to leave his post. He was convinced to stay. The writing was long on the wall: Mahdi Ali had stuck too rigidly to the same players and the same tactics. It had become predictable. Costly, also.
With the Emirati eventually gone, Bauza was given five weeks to ready the team for Thailand. The 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League was in its final round, meaning he had little time to assess players, both current and potential call-ups. He had rarely his full squad either, reduced by club commitments and wrecked by injuries to key players at key times. Soon, the World Cup dream disappeared.
Now, though, Bauza must be afforded both time and patience to put it right. First, the Gulf Cup of Nations, should it go ahead in December as planned, but more importantly, the Asian Cup in January 2019, on home soil. Something to build towards, start afresh.
It will require a better relationship with the UAE’s clubs than Mahdi Ali experienced during almost four years with the senior team. It will need careful planning, and an injection of new blood, for Iraq displayed again that the current squad, hit by injury and suspension, is not of the requisite standard.
Add to Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil, encourage Majed Hassan and Ismail Al Hammadi back from lengthy injuries. Entrust able back-ups, such as Khalfan Mubarak, Ahmed Al Attas and Mohammed Al Akberi. Freshen the squad, challenge those already there.
Build on that win last week against Saudi Arabia, a first success against their Gulf rivals in more than a decade. Point to the opening Group B victory, way back in September, against Japan in Saitama as reason for believing the UAE can more than hold their own. Then draw a line under Russia 2018, look to Asian Cup 2019.
Finally, Bauza has some time and he should be given the tools to make it work. Everyone must buy into that, from the players to the clubs to the organisations that govern the game here. At least provide him the opportunity to do his best. After that, Bauza has to display that his best is good enough.