tThe road to Qatar ends in Qatar for Australia or the United Arab Emirates this week. One team returns home and begins preparations for the 2023 Asian Cup; the other remains in Doha to face Peru in an intercontinental play-off six days later, with the winner of that match returning in November for matches against France, Denmark and Tunisia.
Roel Coumans will follow Tuesday’s game (beginning of Wednesday AEST) with more interest than most neutral players and has had a foothold in both camps. The Dutchman joined the Socceroos set up as Bert van Marwijk’s number 2 in January 2018 and the pair left the UAE national team in February this year after disappointing results in World Cup qualifiers.
The Socceroos have been here before – securing a berth in 2018 with play-off wins over Syria and then Honduras – but Coumans believes things are different this time around.
“Compared to the past, Australia just don’t have players at the highest level in Europe,” he says. “Look at Matt Ryan. He was in Brighton, went to Arsenal and then to Spain, where he doesn’t play many games at the top level anymore. Four years ago, when we were preparing for the World Cup, we didn’t have that many at a high level. Now there are even fewer of them and that is a bit worrisome.”
The UAE, 180 minutes away from a first World Cup appearance since their debut in 1990, has a fully domestically based squad and while this is a concern at home, there are benefits. “In the UAE, at least the players play throughout the season and the biggest advantage is that they can pause the competition to create extra training time with the team,” says Coumans. At kick-off, the Whites have been together for two weeks, first in Dubai and then in Doha.
Another big difference between this playoff and the previous one is the format. The match will still be between the third-placed teams from Asia’s Group A and B, but instead of the home and away games of the past, it will be a one-off game. There is good news for Socceroos coach Graham Arnold as Coumans does not see the June heat as a major factor at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. “Although it is warm everywhere, they play in an air-conditioned stadium. I was there not long ago. On the pitch it will be 17-18C and very comfortable. The downside for Australia is that they should have cheered their fans on at home.”
More than 5,000 UAE supporters are expected to be there, although Coumans doesn’t think they will be treated to a feast of attacking football. Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Arnold’s counterpart and Van Marwijk’s successor, had little time to take the lead, but in March’s unlikely home win over South Korea, who took third place, the team completely surrendered possession, with about a fifth of the ball. Somehow they kept a clean sheet and managed to score a breakaway goal. “If I look at the style of the coaches, they won’t take any risks, but Australia has to play with the Australian spirit, be aggressive and try to get into one-on-one situations.”
The UAE needs a different approach, says Coumans. “They have to play football, try to control the midfield and avoid physical fights.” The return of 2016 Asian Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman from injury is potentially significant. “He can make the difference, but he hasn’t played many games yet. He still has the touch, his left foot is extremely good.”
If the one-time Manchester City target can restore his partnership with striker Ali Mabkhout, who tops the charts with 14 goals for this qualifier, and expand his international tally to 80, then the Socceroos will be in trouble. “Mabkhout is phenomenal, a killer in and outside the box and his statistics are of a very high level,” says Coumans. “He had some trouble with his form last year, but he’s getting back on track at the right time.”
But even as the stars of the UAE shine, Coumans knows that Australia cannot be ruled out even after winning just two of their last eight matches, including a 2-1 warm-up win against Jordan on Wednesday. “Their minds can make a huge difference. That’s something with Aussie players, they can create this extra mentality to win the game as a team and this game is about being the best team, not having the best players.”
Despite or thanks to his extensive experience with both teams, Coumans finds it difficult to name the result. “Everything is possible in this one game. It will be a close call, history shows that. I think they are equal. The question now is, do you just want to go to the World Cup or do you really really want to go? The team that really wants to suffer, sacrifice and play as a team will win.”
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