The UAE continue to stumble towards January 2019’s Asian Cup.
In Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Venezuela which will be forever defined by 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman’s feeble first-half penalty, they went behind after one minute and were left without hope just two minutes after the interval.
A comfortable evening, then, in a deserted Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys for the victors, admittedly, ranked 45 places higher in 32nd by FIFA.
Yet this same side finished bottom of CONMEBOL qualifying for World Cup 2018. Plus, had lost three of their preceding four internationals.
Momentum gained in Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Honduras escaped into the Barcelona night.
Wednesday’s one-year anniversary at the helm for Alberto Zaccheroni has been met with recrimination, rather than joy. No surprise when the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan coach has won just a third of his 15 matches in charge, scoring a miserly nine goals along the way.
It’s now just one victory since January – and that came via a 3-0 walkover against minnows Laos last month. Hardly anything to shout about.
And yet, the early signs – at an organisation not usually prone to capriciousness – point towards the UAE Football Association reiterating a desire to see this project through.
All evidence, however, points to ruin headed in this direction.
Loyalty can be a dangerous game.
Fealty in the maudlin final months of Mahdi Ali’s reign only worked to critically impinge hopes of making the World Cup under belated successor Edgardo Bauza.
Zaccheroni’s tenure hangs by a thread. All logic points towards the inescapable necessity of termination.
It is not too late to effect positive change. A pair of training camps remain before January 5’s big kick-off at Zayed Sports City against Bahrain.
Not ideal timing. But equally, it’s not too late to fix the damage caused by the ill-fitting Zaccheroni regime.
This stance isn’t based in isolation.
Losing to Venezuela can be forgiven. Especially when 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout have been sent home with injury.
Even without this celebrated pair, some chances were created.
Zaccheroni will further point to Abdulrahman’s woefully under-hit spot-kick, that embarrassingly bobbled past the post.
This came five minutes before half-time. Two minutes after the restart and their disadvantage was doubled.
Where Zaccheroni’s reign becomes untenable is in the consistent lack of fighting spirit and dare that has been exhibited on the pitch.
The Whites failed to score from open play throughout a dull run at last winter’s Gulf Cup that, unsatisfactorily, ended with defeat on penalties in the final to unfancied Oman.
An experimental side then headed to Thailand for March’s King’s Cup. Rather than push for future opportunities, this bunch were effortlessly swatted aside by Slovakia and Gabon.
The summer brought a fresh low when European whipping boys Andorra were not unduly troubled during a 0-0 draw. This provided a worrisome end to a three-week camp in Austria.
Undercooked Trinidad and Tobago hadn’t played since April and trained only the day before September’s friendly. They came away with a comfortable 2-0 triumph from a match during which Mabkhout and Abdulrahman ended international absences caused by a broken curfew the night before January’s Gulf decider.
In truth, the ‘Zaccheroni project’ has been broken since the start.
His reign with Japan peaked with 2011’s Asian Cup success and reached its end thanks to World Cup 2014’s discordant group-stage exit, with one point.
At Beijing Guoan, nine points and seven goals from the opening nine matches of the 2016 season saw him instantly dismissed. Dismal figures which are mirrored in his current posting.
With the Whites, Zaccheroni’s trademark 3-4-3 formation and defensive principles jar with the talents he inherited. You cannot expect the principles of ‘Catenaccio’ to be applied successfully to Mohammed Al Menhali, an ageing Ismail Ahmed, converted centre-back Mohamed Ahmed and Mahmoud Khamis.
Anchor men such as Ahmed Barman and Khamis Esmail control opposition teams through possession, rather than diligence.
A switch to a familiar 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 set-up has provided some appeasement. So too the late acknowledgement of Al Jazira playmaker Khalfan Mubarak’s talents.
If it is enough to salvage ambitious hopes of recreating 1996’s run to the final when the continental competition last came to the UAE…
Well, that stance would require a dose of optimism utterly incongruous to the joyless tactics and fayre served up throughout Zaccheroni’s miserable stint.
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