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Saudi setback, UAE lucky: 5 things we learned from latest round of Asian qualifiers for 2022 World Cup

Eight World Cup qualifiers down and two to go. The road to Qatar 2022 has been a long one, but is almost over. Despite Saudi Arabia’s loss to Japan, Herve Renard’s men have plenty of margin to bounce back and qualify for this year’s finals, while the UAE are clinging on to a playoff spot.

Here are five things that Arab News learned from Tuesday’s action in the Asian qualifiers.

1. Saudi Arabia missed Salman Al-Faraj

Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 loss to Japan in Saitama can be put down to a number of factors. The long trip east will not have helped and the departure of midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki through injury in the first half was also a blow. 

The absence of Salman Al-Faraj was a bigger problem, however. Saudi Arabia were second best throughout the game. It was striking that Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu allowed the visitors to have more of the ball, and it soon became apparent that this was an effective tactic because Saudi Arabia were not able to create a chance of note.

Had the Al-Hilal star, with his silky passion and impressive vision, been on the pitch then surely the Green Falcons could have hurt the Samurai Blue, at least a little. Al-Faraj also provides a cool head — there were some heated moments, especially early in the game — and could have slowed things down in the middle.

The trip to Japan was always going to be the toughest one for Saudi Arabia, but the next time they return to East Asia, for the crucial game with China in March, Al-Faraj should be completely fit. He will be needed.

2. Saudi Arabia owe Oman and Abdullah Fawaz a huge thank you

Oman fought back twice to hold Australia to a 2-2 draw in Muscat and, in doing so, made Saudi Arabia’s path to Qatar a lot easier as they stay four points clear of the third-placed Socceroos with two games left to play.

Because of Oman’s result, if the Green Falcons win in China in March then they will qualify.  It is as simple as that. Also, if Australia lose to Japan on the same day, Saudi Arabia will qualify regardless of what happens in China. 

Oman were second best for the first half, but were always in the game and then equalized soon after the restart. 

The Reds are going to get nothing from the group, expectedly so when Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are around. That was unfortunate. Had Oman been drawn in Group A, they would be in third place and looking forward to the playoffs. 

Oman have been better than the UAE, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and deserve more for their efforts.

3. UAE following Napoleon’s dictum

The French military genius said that he preferred lucky generals to good ones. He would be happy with Bert van Marwijk at the moment, even though the UAE lost 1-0 to Iran.

After successive wins and with Iran already qualifying, the trip to Tehran should not have been as daunting as usual. Yet despite Iran playing almost all the second half with 10 men, the UAE will be thinking that they should have caused the hosts a few more problems.

The goal summed up much of the performance, with Mehdi Taremi reacting much faster to a loose ball in the area and shooting home. Iran were just a little quicker and sharper.

But the Whites, who have not impressed in this stage, are enjoying some good fortune, and are looking quite secure in the race for third place and the playoffs. The 1-1 draw between Iraq and Lebanon keeps them three points clear in third and it will be secured if they beat Iraq in the next game.

After a series of uncertain performances, the UAE will readily take that scenario.

4. Iraq need to think about direction after sacking coach

With no wins in eight games after a 1-1 draw with Lebanon, it was hardly surprising to hear reports from Baghdad that Iraq had fired Zeljko Petrovic who, just last week, was promising fans long-term benefits.

Short-term results were too poor, however. That the Lions of Mesopotamia have not yet tasted victory in this stage is a huge disappointment, even considering the fact that they are still not allowed to play home games at home. Against Lebanon they had chances to win, but the team is still playing as a group of individuals.

Where is the Iraq that defeated Iran in the previous round of qualification and looked set to give qualification for the World Cup a good go? They are nowhere to be found at this stage.

Despite their inconsistent performances, Iraq should be in third place. They blew a potential match-winning lead against the UAE after only five minutes and then only held the advantage against Syria for a similar length of time. A little more defensive discipline and Iraq would be in third above UAE and holding their fate in their own hands.

As it is, they have to beat the UAE in the next game in March and hope that South Korea can do them a favor in the final game. Whatever happens, Iraq need to step back and think about the direction they are taking. 

5. Syria have no complaints while Lebanon still in it

Syria’s 2-0 loss to South Korea in Dubai leaves them rooted to the bottom of Group A with just two points. This is a far cry from the team that reached the playoffs on the road to Russia. While they had an early goal against Korea ruled out for offside, the East Asians were superior in all areas of the pitch, especially in the second half when they started to find their mojo.

Syria have lost some of that intensity that carried them so far four years ago, and could take a few lessons from Lebanon in that respect. The team is limited in terms of talent, but works hard and never gives up.

If the Cedars had a little more talent in the striking ranks then they could be closer to third place. As it is, the dream is still alive, though only a win will do against Syria in the next game.

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