The road to Qatar will end in Qatar for either Australia or the United Arab Emirates this week. One team will return home and start preparations for the 2023 Asian Cup; the other will stay in Doha to take on Peru in an intercontinental playoff seven days later, with the winner of that game returning in November for games against France, Denmark, and Tunisia.
Roel Coumans will be watching Tuesday’s game (early Wednesday AEST) with more interest than most neutrals and has had a foot in both camps. The Dutchman joined the Socceroos set-up in January 2018 as Bert van Marwijk’s No two; the pair left the UAE national team in February this year following disappointing results in World Cup qualification.
The Socceroos have been here before – they secured a 2018 berth with playoff victories over Syria and then Honduras – but Coumans believes things are different this time.
“Compared to the past, Australia just doesn’t have any players at the top level of Europe,” he says. “Look at Mat Ryan. He was at Brighton, went to Arsenal, then to Spain, where he did not play many matches at the top level. Four years ago, when preparing for the World Cup, we didn’t have that many at a high level. Now there are even fewer, and that is a bit worrying.”
The UAE, 180 minutes away from a first World Cup appearance since their 1990 debut, has an entirely domestic-based squad, and while this causes concerns at home, there are benefits. “At least in the UAE, the players play all through the season, and the biggest advantage is that they can pause the league to create extra training time with the team,” Coumans says. By kick-off, the Whites will have been together for two weeks, first in Dubai and then in Doha.
Another major difference between this playoff and previous ones is the format. The game is still between the third-placed teams from Asia’s Group A and B, but it is a one-off rather than the home and away epics of the past. 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. “While it is hot everywhere, they will play in an air-conditioned stadium. I was there not long ago. On the pitch, it will be 17-18C and very comfortable. The disadvantage for Australia is they would have had their fans at home cheering them on.”
There are expected to be more than 5,000 UAE supporters though Coumans does not think they will be treated to a feast of attacking football. Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Arnold’s opposite number, and Van Marwijk’s successor, has had little time in charge; in the unlikely home win in March over South Korea that clinched third place, the team completely surrendered possession, having around a fifth of the ball. Somehow they kept a clean sheet and managed a breakaway goal. “When I look at the style of the coaches, they will not take risks, but Australia should play with the Australian spirit, be aggressive and try to get into one-on-one situations.”
UAE needs a different approach, says Coumans. “They should play football, try to control the midfield, and avoid physical battles.” The return of Omar Abdulrahman, 2016 Asian Player of the Year, from injury is potentially significant. “He can make a difference but hasn’t played many games. He still has the touch; his left foot is extremely good.”
Suppose the one-time Manchester City target can re-establish his partnership with striker Ali Mabkhout, who tops the scoring charts for this qualifying tournament with 14 goals and is looking to add to his international tally of 80. In that case, the Socceroos are going to have problems. “Mabkhout is phenomenal, a killer in and outside the box, and his stats are very high,” Coumans says. “He suffered a little bit with his form last year but is getting back on track at the right time.”
Yet even if the UAE stars shine, Coumans knows that Australia cannot be counted out, even after winning just two of their last eight games, which included a 2-1 warm-up victory against Jordan on Wednesday. “Their spirit can make a huge difference. That is something about Aussie players, they can create this different mentality to win the match as a team, and this game is about being the best team, not having the best players.”
Despite, or because of, his extensive experience with both teams, Coumans finds it hard to call the result. “In this one match, everything is possible. It will be a close call; history shows that. I think they are equal. Do you want to go to the World Cup, or do you want to go? The team that wants to suffer, sacrifice, and play as a team will win.”