Titleholder France held by Croatia to 1-1 in Nations League

Titleholder France held by Croatia to 1-1 in Nations League
Titleholder France held by Croatia to 1-1 in Nations League

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - The World Cup hopes of both the UAE and Australia are on the line on Tuesday night when the two meet in Doha in a do-or-die Intercontinental Playoff.

The winner of the clash will advance to face Peru, who finished fifth in South American qualifying, for the right to reach Qatar 2022.

Ahead of the occasion, we take a look at the major talking points heading into the match at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

1. Tom Rogic withdraws

The Socceroos have been short of genuine playmaking options for a number of years now, but the one outlier has always been Celtic’s Tom Rogic. With a wicked left foot, the 29-year-old has often been relied upon to be the creative spark in Graham Arnold’s side.

Fresh off a near career best season in Glasgow, under former Australian national team manager Ange Postecoglou, expectations were high that Rogic could translate his excellent club form to the international stage and help guide Australia past, not only the UAE, but also Peru.

But just days after being named in Arnold’s extended squad, Rogic withdrew citing “personal reasons”. The Canberra-born Rogic has always been an insular character, so much so that Arnold himself is not even sure of the exact reason why Rogic has withdrawn.

What is known, however, is that his loss will be felt greatly by a Socceroos side in desperate need of a creative spark.

2. Omar returns

While Australia have lost their playmaker, the UAE have been bolstered by the return of the country’s best creative talent — Omar Abdulrahman.

The former Asian Player of the Year has been in the international wilderness for over two years, crippled by recurring injuries, but on the back of a number of impressive displays for his new club, Shabab Al-Ahli, especially in the recent AFC Champions League group stage, he has returned to Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s squad.

His inclusion is a massive boost for an Emirati side who, like their opponents, have suffered from a lack of creativity throughout this qualifying campaign.

While the now 30-year-old Abdulrahman remains well short of full fitness, and is expected to play a role off the bench rather than from the start, he is a dangerous weapon for any side to have in their arsenal and when he is introduced into the game, no doubt will strike a little fear into those wearing green and gold.

3. UAE hoping new coach bounce continues

Since the last time Australia and the UAE met, Australia have not had a single change of coach, with Arnold remaining in charge since the Emirates stunned Australia in the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup in January 2019.

In that time the UAE have had no fewer than five coaching changes. Dutchman Bert van Marwijk was appointed, sacked, re-appointed and then sacked again all within the one chaotic qualifying campaign.

But in former Al-Wasl and Shabab Al-Ahli manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena, have they finally found the man with the magic formula for this group of players? The sample size is still very small, but the 1-0 win over South Korea to seal their spot in this playoff was impressive and reports from the UAE suggest the mood around camp is a happy one.

The question remains, however, as to whether he has had enough time with the team to really enact any significant change and whether they can still ride the so-called “new coach bounce.”

4. Who do Australia turn to for goals?

Trying to find a regular and consistent number nine has long been an issue Australia, ever since Mark Viduka retired after the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.

Given his aerial prowess, Tim Cahill was made a makeshift centre forward towards the end of his playing career with significant success, but upon his retirement after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a giant hole was left at the top of Australia’s attack — one that is still yet to be filled.

Jamie Maclaren has been Australia’s most consistent goal-scorer, winning three Golden Boots on the trot in the A-League Men’s competition, and four of the past six, but he has struggled to translate that excellent domestic form onto the international arena.

Adam Taggart has appeared to be Graham Arnold’s preferred option up top, but has endured a horror 12 months on the injury front, and has only just returned to action for his Japanese club, Cerezo Osaka, in the past six weeks. Although in that time he has found the back of the net twice.

But does he have the match fitness to last the full 90 minutes in such a high stakes match?

Arnold has put his faith in the trio of Taggart, Maclaren and Mitch Duke (along with newly capped Nick D’Agostino), who have been ever present throughout this campaign, rather than go for the left-field options of Bruno Fornaroli or Jason Cummings. Will his faith be rewarded?

5. Can Ali Mabkhout find his form?

Goal scoring has tended to be one area the UAE had few concerns given the potency of Ali Mabkhout, who boasts an incredible record of 80 goals from 104 international matches.

But after scoring 11 goals in the second round of Asian qualifiers, the Al-Jazira marksman suffered an uncharacteristic case of the yips in the third round, scoring just three goals. Chances he would normally bury went begging as the Emirates registered only seven goals throughout the 10 matches of the final round of qualifying.

Given his importance to the side, it is not overstating things to say that he is one of, if not the most important player for Arruabarrena’s side on Tuesday evening. In such a high stakes game, chances are often few and far between, so when they present you need to be clinical.

If Mabkhout can find the lethal form he has shown for the majority of his career, it will go a long way towards helping the Emirates make it back-to-back wins against the Socceroos and inflict even more misery on the former continental kings.

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