x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Things just got a lot harder for the UAE

Kuwait proved too fast, too crafty ... too good for the UAE to cope with in their 2014 World Cup qualifier. Now the question is whether the Emirati side will ever be good enough under the stewardship of Srecko Katanec.

Mohamed Al Shehhi, left, went flying to nudge a header but he and his UAE teammates could not keep the speedy Kuwait side grounded.
Mohamed Al Shehhi, left, went flying to nudge a header but he and his UAE teammates could not keep the speedy Kuwait side grounded.

No one said it would be easy. But few suspected it would be this hard.

The steeper portion of the national team's road to the 2014 World Cup began Friday night in Al Ain, with the UAE playing host to an in-form Kuwait side which was not at all interested in adhering to the traditional group play convention of "win at home, draw on the road".

This was not sluggish, slow and unimaginative India, whom the UAE dismissed with little fuss back in July, 5-2 on aggregate, in the second round of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifying for global football's mega-event.

This was a potent Kuwait team - fast, experienced, crafty and fast. Yes, we repeated "fast", because the speed of foot and mind of the visitors left that big an impression on the match. Right from the opening kick-off, the UAE seemed to be sprinting to keep up, and after the seventh minute they were sprinting to keep the match close.

Kuwait's pace revealed itself in the first minute, when the left-sided midfielder Fahad Al Enezi, who perhaps should be at the athletics world championships, began a long night of raids up the flank - blistering runs more reminiscent of the Premier League than the sometimes sleepy domestic competitions in the Gulf.

Kuwait also were more comfortable on the ball, more incisive in seeing and exploiting diagonal balls, and it was no great surprise when, in the seventh minute, the striker, Yousef Naser, found himself in the box with only Hamdan Al Kamali between him and the goalkeeper. His shot deflected off the UAE's best young defender, floated over the head of the goalkeeper, Majed Naser, and into the net.

The crowd of 8,000, all but the Kuwait-blue fraction of it, fell silent. The goal did not feel like a shock, but like an accident. It was a warning. It was alarming.

Forced to chase the game, the UAE opened themselves to the blur of the Kuwaiti counterattack, of which the UAE coach, Srecko Katanec, had warned the day before, and the visitors put away goals in the 51st minute and the 65th. The latter prompted many of the Emirati fans in the stands to stream for the exits.

Those who remained were rewarded by goals from Ismail Al Hammadi, the gritty little Al Ahli midfielder, and Ahmed Khalil in the 89th minute to close the gap to 3-2.

But the UAE still surrendered three points at home to the side it most likely has to beat to be one of the two teams to survive the four-nation Group B and move into the final round of qualifying. Five games remain to make that happen. And this is where we address the obligatory question of "what does the future hold for the manager"?

It is a bit daft to consider abandoning the Slovenian, who has spent most of two years preparing the UAE side for World Cup qualifying, after one match in Round 3. But what other options do the FA have to shake up the side?

It is fair to ask what Katanec might have done, exactly, to instil additional pace into his side. Few in the world of sport actually believe that an athlete can gain any significant running speed from hard work or training, and it was Kuwait's speed that was the most prominent advantage.

But it also is fair to ask if Katanec, himself a defender in his playing days, has any real idea of how to produce an attacking side.

If the UAE could not run with Kuwait, perhaps they could hold the ball long enough to minimise Kuwait's chances - and to wait for the slightest of cracks in the Kuwait back four - before his side were in a 3-0 hole with six minutes to play.

The UAE's scoring record in tournament under Katanec is abysmal. Zero goals in three Asian Cup matches in January. Three scoreless games from four in the Gulf Cup, last autumn. Two consolation goals last night.

Even of those five goals against India in the AFC second round, two were penalties and a third came when India were playing with nine men.

Many UAE fans seem already to have made a decision on the matter. They were the fellows who shouted, in English, "Katanec go home!" whenever he made an appearance from under the home team's dugout in the second half.

Katanec, or someone else, now must minister to the battered psyches of the UAE side, as they travel to Lebanon today for a Tuesday match in Beirut. The Lebanese lost 6-0 to South Korea last night, and the UAE absolutely must take three points, three days hence, or their campaign will be over before it has fairly started. Yes, it is that hard.