DUBAI: Teenage winger Harib Abdullah was the toast of the UAE on Tuesday after his first-ever international goal proved enough to beat South Korea 1-0 in Dubai and confirm a June World Cup playoff against Australia.
The result means that dreams of Qatar, and a second appearance on the global stage, are very much alive as victory against the Socceroos will mean progress to a final showdown against the fifth-placed team in South America’s CONMEBOL standings, currently Peru.
Abdullah, the 19-year-old Shabab Al-Ahli star, was making his first international start and scored just after the break against the already-qualified South Korea to ensure that the Whites finish third in Group A with 12 points from 10 games.
Iraq, who started the day just a point behind, drew 1-1 with Syria, also in Dubai, to finish three points behind in fourth.
The Taeguk Warriors arrived at the Al-Maktoum Stadium as the only Asian team still unbeaten in the third round of qualification. Korea had over three-quarters of possession and most of the goal attempts, but were unable to get the goal that would have given them first place in the group above Iran, who had defeated Lebanon 2-0 earlier in the day.
Despite having so much of the ball, the visitors failed to create enough. In the first half, there was little goalmouth action. The only shot on target in the 45 minutes came from Abdullah, though his low effort from outside the area was straight at Jo Hyun-woo.
Hwang Hee-chan came closest to actually scoring, and it would have been a beauty. Khalid Eisa punched a Son Heung-min corner clear of the area, but there was the
Wolverhampton Wanderers forward to execute a spectacular sidefoot volley chip that came back off the crossbar.
The first half saw video reviews for two possible penalties, one for each team. Earlier, the Omani official seemed to blow for a shirt tug by Kim Tae-hwan outside the area. A review showed that the pull had been inside, but it would have been the softest of spot kicks. The original decision stood, as was the case in stoppage time when there was a handball inside the area from a Korean corner. Once again, the referee had a look and decided that there was no reason to change his mind.
At the start of the second half, the visitors again came out of the blocks strongly, but after 54 minutes, out of nothing and against the run of play, UAE took the lead. Abdullah collected a header from Mohammad Al-Baloushi, sprinted clear of the Korean defense and kept his cool in impressive fashion to roll the ball past Jo from just inside the area. It was only the third goal conceded by Korea in the 10 games of the group stage.
Korea were soon back in attack, with Eisa pushing a Hwang Ui-jo header onto the crossbar. But, again, there was a lack of fluency in attack and they struggled to break down the home team. There were nerves as the 90 minutes ended with a Son free-kick that was beaten away by the goalkeeper. That was the last meaningful action and the cue for the home fans to start celebrating.
That unlikely result ended Iraq’s chances of third, though the team failed to do their part anyway, drawing 1-1 with Syria, also in Dubai. Syria, who had picked up their first win of the stage against Lebanon last week, took the lead after just three minutes.
A delightful flick from Mardik Mardikian wrong-footed the Iraqi backline and there was Alaa Al-Dali to chest the ball down and then volley home powerfully from just outside the six yard box. Iraq were stunned, but slowly started to threaten and drew level just after the half hour. Syria failed to clear the danger and when Dhurgam Ismail crossed from the left, an unmarked Aymen Hussein headed home into the bottom corner powerfully.
Both teams continued to have chances in the second half, but the scoreline stayed the same.
The point lifts Syria off bottom place into fifth above Lebanon. Iraq stay in fourth, with the UAE taking third. It means that a disappointing campaign for the UAE ends on a high and now the game with Australia can be approached with confidence. Win that and Qatar really will start to move into view.