Bert van Marwijk has led teams, to victory and defeat, in UEFA Cup and World Cup finals.
He’s, successfully, weathered overbearing Saudi Arabian expectation about engineering a return to the global stage. Plus, felt intolerable strain during inescapable tailspins at two of Germany’s iconic clubs.
Impending second-round World Cup 2022 qualifiers against Indonesia and Malaysia for the UAE should pale into insignificance when cast against those imposing previous challenges. These, however, are defining days in what is likely the final posting of a celebrated 21-year managerial career.
If the unconvincing opening win at Malaysia is followed by dropped points in the double-header, anxiety about long-term regression and elusive World Cup ambitions will grow.
These fears and faults consumed immediate predecessors Mahdi Ali, Edgardo Bauza and Alberto Zaccheroni. The latest incumbent must ensure they do not reach critical mass.
Narrative can be an unappreciated force in football. Control of it helped carry Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to the permanent hot seat as guardian of the “United Way”, while its devastating loss amplifies every setback suffered by the “out of his depth” custodian from the red half of Manchester.
No-one from the Emirates can legitimately question Van Marwijk’s curriculum vitae. They could, however, feverishly debate his enduring suitability to oversee a broad generational change, while remaining competitive on the pitch, if initial slip-ups occur.
Victories on Thursday against Indonesia at Dubai’s Al Maktoum Stadium and Thailand’s Thammasat Stadium the following Tuesday would generate a wave of positivity. The latter fixture, in particular, is a bellwether for how this qualifying cycle may turnout for coach and team.
Last month’s trying 2-1 victory in Malaysia was earned by a bold selection stocked with international rookies. Only four players survived from the preceding competitive XI, a semi-final defeat on home soil at January 2019’s Asian Cup under the maligned Zaccheroni.
Creditable faith was exhibited at Bukit Jalil National Stadium in emerging Al Jazira centre-backs Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi.
Wingers Jassem Yaqoub, 22, and Ali Saleh, 19, of Al Nasr and Al Wasl made competitive bows. Improved Al Wahda midfielder Khalil Ibrahim, 26, was chosen after he gained an opening international cap only in August.
This investment in time will need to see further returns in October’s international break – and beyond.
Van Marwijk will be buoyed by a win amid adversity in Malaysia. His side had to rebound from a first-minute concession, while celebrated second-half substitute Omar Abdulrahman was playing his first competitive minutes since October 2018’s devastating knee injury.
A gentle rehabilitation for the inspirational 2016 AFC Player of the Year has witnessed three subsequent Arabian Gulf League cameos, plus his start in the Arab Club Champions Cup versus Oman’s Al Nasr.
2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil missed out on the Malaysia date, yet is back in the fold. The injury prone forward has so often fulfilled the role of national saviour in a decade of international service.
Immediate opponents Indonesia recorded successive home losses to neighbours Malaysia – amid riotous scenes – and Thailand last month, making it a painful return to qualifying after being banned on the Road to Russia.
The trip to Thailand, in contrast, should be the most-stringent test in Group G.
June 2017’s desperate 1-1 draw at Rajamangala Stadium, under Bauza, effectively ended dreams of making World Cup 2018. The same scoreline rounded out Group A commitments at this year’s Asian Cup.
A boost for the UAE, however, comes with the enforced withdrawal of acclaimed Consadole Sapporo playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin.
Reasons to be cheerful, then, for Van Marwijk. He must remain the author of his own destiny.
Round 3 of the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
Champions Sharjah earned a dramatic 3-2 victory against Al Ain thanks to another dose of Igor Coronado magic, while Ajman’s outstanding start continued with a 1-0 win at floundering Al Wasl. An acrobatic strike from Abdullah Al Seiari also earned promoted Hatta an opening win of the season, to the detriment of Ittihad Kalba.
Here are Sport360°’s top picks and a talking point:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Igor Coronado (Sharjah)
Fresh superlatives run in short supply when the Brazilian playmaker is involved.
The reigning Foreign Player of the Year ran rings around Al Ain in a valuable 3-2 win – literally speaking on his way to forcing a fine first-half save. His penalty was expertly dispatched and the first-time hit from 20 yards that made it 2-2 utterly divine.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Abdullah Al Seiari (Hatta)
A moment of genuine inspiration earned promoted Hatta a first three points of the campaign.
There seemed little on when Mahmood Qassim lopped a hopeful cross in. But Al Seiari wheeled off the last man and struck a stupendous bicycle kick to inflict a 1-0 defeat on managerless Ittihad Kalba.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Ayman El Ramady (Ajman)
These are historic times for the Orange Brigade.
A return of seven points from three matches is their best-ever start in the top flight – and El Ramady, in his fourth season, has engineered it.
Added value came from late summer addition Bubacarr Trawally lashing the only goal into the bottom corner against awful Al Wasl.
JAZIRA SHOW THEIR METTLE
A flood of goals were expected when title pretenders Al Jazira and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club met.
That a goalless draw followed actually spoke volumes about the host’s improved hopes this term. They had conceded a punishing 41 times in 26 top-flight games last term, draining points away after a vibrant start to finish fifth.
Serbia centre-back Milos Kosanovic already resembles the division’s smartest signing of the summer, while youngsters Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi have matured nicely. These players are perfect compliments to a vibrant attack.
Ajman made the biggest splashes on a quiet summer transfer deadline day in the Arabian Gulf League with their captures of forwards Bubacarr Trawally and Rashed Al Hajri.
Trawally, 24, joined the Orange Brigade after a short spell at Al Shabab included three goals in 11 Saudi Professional League run-outs. The Gambian replacement for unconvincing Nigerian forward Godwin Mensha had emerged as a talent of some repute after he scored 37 times in 83 Chinese Super League matches for Yanbian Funde and Guizhou Zhicheng from 2016-18.
Al Hajri, also 24, will be aiming to kick-start a once-promising career that stalled badly at Al Wasl. He made only one top-flight appearance in three seasons at Zabeel Stadium upon arrival from – now defunct – Al Shaab.
Elsewhere, promoted Khor Fakkan ditched Brazilian striker Pedro Junior, 32, from their four-player foreign quota and drafted in Uzbekistan international Temurkhuja Abdukholiqov, 28, from Lokomotiv Tashkent. In the domestic market, Bani Yas have wrestled 22-year-old forward Mohammed Al Hammadi from neighbours Al Wahda.
Junior had failed to find the back of the net in two AGL starts this term. Worries about a lack of goals from the Eagles saw them land a striker who also featured for Croatia’s Hadjuk Split and Qatar’s Al Sailiya.
Statistics released by the UAE Football Associations showed that 640 transfers, in the various categories for AGL and First Division League-outfits, were made from July 9-September 30. The 2020 winter transfer window will open on January 7 and close on February 3.