UAE face uphill task to qualify for 2018 World Cup after defeat to Japan
UAE 0 Japan 2
Japan: Kubo (14’), Konno (51’)
Man of the match: Yuya Kubo (Japan)
AL AIN // The UAE’s chances of making it to next year’s World Cup in Russia suffered another blow after they were comprehensively outplayed by Japan.
Goals from Yuya Kubo and Yasuyuki Konno gave Japan the three points against a faltering national team, in front of 23,700 supporters at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
The result means the UAE are now four points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan, who occupy the two automatic qualifying places in Group B.
The national team will now fly to Sydney, where they play Australia on Tuesday, to attempt to salvage their hopes of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1990.
Australia themselves had drawn 1-1 with Iraq earlier in the day, meaning they hold the third place in the group, one point ahead of the UAE.
Even before the start in the Garden City, the national team’s prospects felt bleak. Ahmed Khalil, Asia’s player of the year in 2015 and the leader scorer in the World Cup qualifiers, was ruled out on the day of the game because of a calf injury.
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It was a major blow. Khalil had scored both goals when the UAE won the reverse fixture 2-1 in Saitama six months ago.
His absence prompted a rejig of Mahdi Ali’s tried and trusted line up, with Al Wahda veteran Ismail Matar brought into the forward line. He was given the captain’s armband to boot.
To add to the problems, centre-back linchpin Ismail Ahmed was also ruled out, giving a start to Hamdan Al Kamali.
Amid the changes, the hosts were sluggish out of the blocks. Almost literally. When the Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov blew the first whistle, half of the UAE team were stood together talking to each other.
The lethargy continued during the opening exchanges, with Yuya Osako, the Japan striker, going close twice in the first seven minutes.
It appeared as though it was going to be a long night for the home team at that point, and they were a goal behind shortly after.
The ease with which the visitors struck the opener was startling. A simple pass around the left side of the UAE defence by right-back Hiroki Sakai found Kubo, who calmly shot past Khalid Essa at his near post.
Despite the subdued atmosphere, the national team had the chance to level six minutes later. Ismail Al Hammadi’s tenacity created a clear opening for Ali Mabkhout, but the Arabian Gulf League’s leading scorer shot feebly at Eiji Kawashima in the Japan goal.
To sum up the UAE’s frustration, on the stroke of half-time Omar Abdulrahman had a free kick 25 yards out, straight in front of the goal.
Asia’s reigning footballer of the year looked more like a rugby player when attempting his shot, though, curving the ball over the crossbar. And even then, it was wide as well.
Straight after the restart, left-back Abdulaziz Sanqour sent in an appetising cross for Al Hammadi, only for the Al Ahli winger to barely connect as he lashed at the volley. From a similarly decent opening moments later, Sanqour did the same.
The profligacy was immediately costly. Japan showed their hosts how to convert a cross. Kubo turned provider this time, drilling in a cross that Abdulaziz Haikal, the UAE right-back, misjudged at the back post. Konno calmly controlled on his chest, then shot past Essa.
The goalkeeper did manage to keep the UAE within reach when, on the hour, he made a fine save from a header by Osako.
The lack of urgency with which UAE approached the recovery effort was alarming. Mahdi Ali and all the UAE supporters will be hoping the spirit, as well as some injured limbs, will have recovered by the time the team land in Sydney.
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Updated: March 23, 2017 04:00 AM