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Iraq stun the UAE: 5 things we learned from the battle for the AFC’s World Cup playoff spot 

DUBAI: Asia’s Arab teams were in action in the penultimate round of World Cup qualifiers on Thursday and, while Saudi Arabia secured qualification in Group B, results in Group A were mixed in the hunt for that vital third-place play-off spot, and the right to meet Australia.

The UAE are still in that position with nine points, but are now just one point above Iraq, who beat them 1-0. Lebanon has six points, with Syria in last place on five. Over in Group B, Oman have fourth spot sewn up.

Here are five things we learned from the latest action.

UAE are in trouble

Losing 1-0 to Iraq in Riyadh was perhaps the worst result in a stage that has seen a few bad results for the Emiratis. The UAE seemed to have everything going for them as they fought for third.

Their crucial game against Iraq had been moved from Baghdad to Riyadh. Earlier in the day, Syria had defeated Lebanon which meant that even a draw against Iraq would be enough to secure that all-important third place and that play-off against Australia. Yet the Whites still blew it. But it was not that much of a surprise for a team that has underperformed consistently throughout this stage of qualification.

There may have been injuries for new coach Rodolfo Arrubarrena to contend with, but every team has injuries. Selecting three center-backs was a big call and it didn’t work. Going forward, there was plenty of possession but not much idea of what to do with it all and Iraq deserved to win.

Now there is one game left in Dubai against group leaders South Korea. As well as the venue, there is only one thing in the UAE’s favor: Korea will arrive having already qualified. The game in east Asia may have been a 1-0 defeat but that tight scoreline does not reflect the dominance of the Taeguk Warriors. The UAE still control their own fate but need to win to be sure and given current form, it would be something of a surprise.

Iraq finally show their spirit 

Amazingly, Iraq are still very much in it having just won their first game in the group, at the ninth time of asking. The 1-0 victory over the UAE was a deserved win and the performance was spirited. It could have been more as the Lions of Mesopotamia had two decent shouts for a penalty turned down. 

Under a new coach of their own, Abdulghani Shahad, Iraq were well-organized and aggressive on and off the ball. When Hussein Ali gave the 2007 Asian champions the lead after 53 minutes, the “hosts” were happy to sit back and look to hit on the counter. It worked as they continued to look dangerous and could have won more convincingly.

Now there is a chance of third place. If Iraq can beat Syria in the final game, as they will now be confident of doing, and UAE fail to beat South Korea, then the play-off spot against Australia is theirs. 

Too little, too late for Syria, but positive signs shine through

Syria saved their best performance until almost last. Lebanon are not an easy team to beat and to come away with a 3-0 win was impressive. It should be remembered that the veteran stars such as Omar Khribin and Omar Al-Somah, for so long the standard bearers and symbols of Syrian football, were absent from this fixture. 

But they weren’t missed. Syria were full of energy and pressured the home team, giving them little time on the ball or space to pass. The likes of Alaa Al-Dali defended from the front and when he opened the scoring after just 14 minutes, there looked to be only one winner. It gave Syria what they had been lacking for much of the campaign: Confidence.

The Qasioun Eagles went from strength to strength and put in a composed and intelligent performance in what were difficult circumstances. It means that they can look forward to the future with a little more optimism and have a decent chance of not finishing bottom of the group — indeed, if they beat Iraq at home on Tuesday, a fourth place finish is possible.

Lebanon’s home woes continue

Lebanon has fought long and hard in this qualification campaign against a backdrop of economic, social and political problems back home. This was their worst day however, on and off the pitch for the Cedars. Going into the game, they were still in contention for a third-place finish and just needed to beat the team that had collected just two points from the previous eight games. Yet they lost 3-0. 

The team’s form at home has been worse than poor. Lebanon have collected just one of their six points at home — and that solitary point has come from five games. In four away games, they have managed five points. Had home form just matched the away form then Lebanon would have been securely in third place. 

On Thursday, however, Lebanon also performed poorly off the pitch. When the team was 3-0 down, a section of fans pelted officials with bottles and the game was suspended for a period. Perhaps the supporters were hoping for the match to be called off and replayed. That was never going to happen and when the action restarted, the game fizzled out. It was not a great way for Lebanon to end their journey on the road to Qatar. The team is totally out of contention for World Cup glory.

Oman will wish they were in Group A

Fourth place in Group B is now officially Oman’s following a 1-0 win over Vietnam in Hanoi. It was a fine performance. Oman were the better team in the first half and Vietnam had the better of things after the break.

Before the game, Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo had talked about the need to defend well against Oman’s set pieces. They did not do so in the 65th minute, conceding from a perfectly delivered corner that was met by Khalid Al-Hajri’s towering header, rocketing the ball into the top corner.

It was the kind of tidy and compact performance we have come to expect from Oman, who have shown that while they may not quite be able to match the big three of Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia, they are a level above Vietnam and China.

Had Oman been in the other group, then they would have safely finished the qualifying campaign in third place and looking forward to the play-offs. 

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