UAE hopes of reaching 2018 World Cup diminish as Japan deservedly gain their revenge
Japan: Kubo 13’, Konno 51’
Man of the match: Yuya Kubo (Japan)
AL AIN // Bruised and beaten by Japan, the UAE’s road to Russia narrows ever more.
Mahdi Ali’s men, rightfully regarded as the finest crop the country has produced since that exalted 1990 side, went down 2-0 to their lofty opponents at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Thursday night, a deserved defeat that will sting hard.
Aiming for a third successive victory against the Japanese, the UAE came up short. It called for another gutsy performance, like that epic Asian Cup quarter-final of two years ago, or the wonderfully implausible triumph in the Group B opener back in September, but ultimately they could not summon the three-peat.
Japan were just too strong, too sturdy and too streetwise. Goals from Yuya Kubo and Yasuyuki Konno sealed a merited victory, each not long into either half, each setting the UAE back and dampening the spirits of the home crowd. In contrast, the Japanese support bounced and sang and chanted throughout.
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Maybe it is not fair to say their players wanted it more, but for large parts it kind of felt that way. Always first to the ball, forever closing down opponents and squeezing space, they choked the UAE and chopped away at their resolve.
Maybe the encounter merely played out as it should: these serial World Cup qualifiers bossed a group of players for whom a first appearance at a global finals remains a dream. After the loss, and coupled with Saudi Arabia’s earlier victory in Thailand, that ambition appears significantly less attainable.
Of course, the UAE had the game’s two best chances outside of Japan’s double — first Ali Mabkhout and then Ismail Al Hammadi — but on this stage, with the stakes this high, they required a sharper ruthless streak. Much to their dismay, their opponents displayed exactly that.
On 13 minutes, Kubo got in behind the UAE defence and, faced with only Khalid Essa to beat, he calmly dispatched his effort past the Al Ain goalkeeper. In truth, it was all too easy.
Likewise six minutes after the break, when Konno found space on the left-hand side of the UAE penalty area, controlled Kubo’s cross and prodded the ball through Essa’s legs from close range. The hosts needed a response, yet none came.
Granted, they had been hit heavy by injuries and suspension. With Ahmed Khalil deemed not fit enough to take any part, their two other star turns unfortunately failed to turn up. Mabkhout appeared tight and tense throughout, the current Arabian Gulf League top scorer’s night summed up in the 20th minute, when he wasted a golden chance to equalise. Put through on goal by Al Hammadi, a striker way out on his own domestically with 26 goals was way off with his finish. Inexplicably, he shot straight at Eiji Kawashima in the Japan net.
If the UAE looked instead to Omar Abdulrahman for inspiration, their prized asset was found uncharacteristically wanting. Deservedly Asia’s reigning player of the year, here he was upstaged by one of the continent’s finest exports, Shinji Kagawa. The Borussia Dortmund playmaker, who counts Manchester United as a previous employer, is clearly the benefactor of a professional career spent in Europe.
Abdulrahman is often linked with a switch abroad, but he struggled to offer further evidence of a talent capable of excelling outside the UAE. Unable to assert any authority, his most notable contribution arrived late in the first half when he caught Kawashima high on the back with his studs. On closer inspection, Abdulrahman was fortunate to escape with a booking.
The UAE’s past two triumphs against Japan can be considered great escapes themselves, their defence standing tall and Mabkhout, Abdulrahman and Khalil all shining as well, although this time their rivals finally took their chances.
Instead, Mahdi Ali’s side must lick their wounds and go again. Sitting fourth in Group B with four fixtures remaining, they take on third-placed Australia on Tuesday knowing it most probably is all or nothing. Because, after Japan’s measured revenge in the Garden City, a place in the play-offs now seems the only route left to Russia.
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Updated: March 23, 2017 04:00 AM