Resolute UAE keep hopes alive with gritty win as Iran qualify for WC

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Mohammad Abdullah, Sports Reporter

Caeo Canedo and Yahyah Ali Al Ghassani were on target as a depleted UAE shrugged off the pressure and defeated Syria 2-0 in a crunch 2022 World Cup qualifier to keep their hopes alive on Thursday.

UAE were missing the services of the players like strikers Ali Mabkhout, Fabio de Lima, Sebastian Tagliabue and right back Bandar Al Ahbabi.

Mabkhout and Lima are nursing their injuries while Bandar is serving a ban. However, a returning Tagliabue got a place in the squad but did not feature in the starting line-up.

In the absence of the ace players, the onus of taking the UAE through came on the shoulders of Caio Canedo. And the Brazilian lived up to the expectations of the coach and fans alike and broke the deadlock in the 43rd minute to put the UAE 1-0 ahead.

Canedo has been an important cog in the wheels of coach Bert Van Marwijk’s qualification plans. After a grueling battle of 42 minutes, which witnessed no goals being scored by either team, Canedo finally found the back of the nets.

He converted a Khalil Al Hammadi’s assist into a goal with a header from a close range, sending it right in the middle of the net.

After taking a 1-0 lead, a charged-up UAE started attacking more brutally to mount pressure on the opponents. Syria did try to make some in-roads but the UAE kept them at bay and the visitors failed to restore parity.

In the 70th minute, Yahyah Ali Al Ghassani added one more to make it 2-0. He collected a cross from Canedo and tapped the ball inside the net with a gentle caress from a close range.

The referee had disqualified the goal as invalid but the VAR decision went in favour of the UAE as the lead was stretched to 2-0.

After that Syria, who are at the bottom of the standings in the Group A, could not penetrate the tight defence of the UAE, and ended up losing their fifth game of the campaign. They have just two points after eking out two hard-fought draws.

The UAE notched up their second consecutive victory, having defeated Lebanon in an away match earlier after going winless in the first five matches of the third round.

With the victory, the UAE consolidated their position at the third spot with nine points from seven games, having procured two wins, three draws and and two losses.

UAE coach Bert Van Marwijk, who masterminded the Saudi Arabia’s qualification for the Russia World Cup in 2018 and drove his native The Netherlands to final of 2010 World Cup in South Africa, had already ruled out the hopes for a direct qualification and is looking to take an alternate route through a third-place finish.

Twelve teams were divided into two groups of six each. The top two finishers from each group will directly book their berth in the 2022 World Cup finals.

The third-placed finishers from both the groups will meet in a knockout game and the winner will advance to the continental play-offs.

The best third-placed team from each continent will vie for the remaining berths after going through a grueling round of a series of play-offs.

In the other matches of the group, South Korea defeated Lebanon and consolidated their position on the second spot with 17 points.

While Iran also notched up another stunning victory over Iraq and moved to the 19 points to book their berth in the World Cup. Only the top two are guaranteed automatic qualification at the World Cup.

The defeats of Lebanon, who were just one point adrift and keeping it hot on the heels of the UAE, has widened the gap between the two teams and consolidated the UAE’s position at the third place.

Iraq also had four points and a positive result could have catapulted them in fourth place after Lebanon had lost their game.

However, with both Iraq and Lebanon losing their respective games, UAE can heave a sigh of relief as the things look rosier for the UAE to finish third in the group and keep their hopes alive.

If the UAE had failed to beat Syria, South Korea would have also qualified for the tenth consecutive time and 11 in total at the showpiece event.

Though the UAE are virtually out of the race for the direct qualification, mathematically they still have a chance. If the UAE go on to win their remaining matches and South Korea lose all theirs, in that case UAE will move to the 18 points and directly qualify.

The UAE and Syria shared the spoils in the first leg. In the next match at the Arab Cup, the UAE defeated Syria 2-1. The UAE had spurned a good chance to take early advantage and were held by Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on the home turf in the beginning of the third round.

Their campaign has been marred by quite a few injuries in important games at home. They had missed the services of Waleed Abbas, who had returned to the fold after serving the suspension.

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