UAE boss Bert van Marwijk must retain control of narrative in World Cup 2022 qualifiers

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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.

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