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Who imagined it would come to this? The immediate footballing future of the UAE is likely to be decided on the shores of the Mediterranean on Tuesday.

The Group A game against Lebanon, the sixth in the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, was always likely to be a must-win for the UAE but the initial hope was that they would be battling for one of the top two spots in the group that provide an automatic place in Qatar. Instead, it is now a game the UAE cannot afford to lose if they are to have any realistic hope of finishing third and claiming a play-off spot.

After looking so good when the second round of qualification games concluded in June, The Whites have earned just three points from their first five games in the third round. It has been a huge disappointment for a team looking to return to the showpiece of world football for the first time since their 1990 debut.

Had Iran not scored two injury-time goals in Sidon last Thursday to beat Lebanon 2-1, Bert van Marwijk’s team, who are in fifth place in the group, would be five points behind the third-placed Cedars. As it is, the gap is just two.

That is the one positive aspect of the third round so far. With Iran and South Korea pulling away at the top of the group, the remaining four teams are clustered together with only three points separating Lebanon in third and Syria in sixth. Third place is still very much up for grabs even though the UAE has failed to win any of their five games so far, though there will need to be rapid improvement, starting with Tuesday.

There have been some excuses for the poor UAE showing so far, as injuries deprived the team of defenders in South Korea last week. Mahmoud Khamis, Shaheen Abdulrahman and Khalifa Al-Hammadi were all absent, as were Majed Hassan and Khalfan Mubarak in midfield, along with Fabio De Lima who, with a hamstring strain, was a big loss.

All teams have to deal with absences, however, and the UAE would have had no cause for complaint had they lost by four or five goals in South Korea instead of the 1-0 defeat. To make things worse, veteran defender Walid Abbas picked up a suspension.

The pressure is mounting on coach Van Marwijk if he is to have any hope of leading a third team to the World Cup finals, after taking the Netherlands there in 2010 and Australia eight years later. The Dutchman knows that victory on Tuesday is vital — not only for the much-needed points but also to give everyone a lift.

“Every game, we prepare the team to try to play to win, and if you give away the initiative too easily, like we did in the first half, it’s more difficult to win,” he said after the loss to South Korea. “Now we have to look to the next game and prepare for that.”

Lebanon will present a tough challenge, though they will not fly out of the blocks like the aggressive Koreans did. This is a team that is full of heart, very well organized and hardworking. On current form, it would be something of a surprise if the UAE manages to come away with a win, despite only losing once in 13 previous encounters.

Coach Ivan Hasek — who knows all about football in the UAE after several spells with clubs in the country, including a title-winning season with Shabab Al-Ahli in 2009 — has lifted Lebanon’s off-the-ball performance to the next level since taking charge during the summer. His team came within a whisker of beating Iran last week despite having just 29 percent of possession. In fact, in their five group games so far, they have had less of the ball than the opposition.

However they have been much more efficient than the UAE in terms of scoring, with four goals from only 10 shots in the past two games. The Whites, in contrast, have managed to score just three goals from 40 attempts in their five games so far.

This is a serious cause for concern, especially when you consider they have one of the best strikers in Asia in Ali Mabkhout. It has become increasingly clear that when the 31-year-old fails to score, so do the UAE.

He should have put the ball in the net against Lebanon in September during a 0-0 draw in Dubai that set the tone for this stage of the qualification campaign. That point delighted Lebanon but a similar result this week would not be quite so welcome this time as there is real belief that they can win.

This is a game that both teams now view a must-win in the battle for third place in the group. The UAE simply cannot afford to lose as it will leave their chances looking remote.

Sidon has never been a major destination on the Asian footballing map, especially for a coach such as Van Marwijk who has taken teams to the World Cup finals, but it could end up being a turning point for the Dutchman and his team, for better or for worse.

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