It was a game of two halves. Having dominated Thailand in the first half, the UAE faced a strong fightback from the War Elephants in the second half.
But The Whites survived some late drama to complete a 3-1 victory in their AFC World Cup qualifying match at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai on Monday.
First half goals from Caio Canedo and Fabio Lima set the tone for the UAE dominance, but Thailand hit back in the second half with a wonderful goal from Suphanat Mueanta.
The visitors kept on advancing for the equaliser in the dramatic encounter, but a quick UAE counterattack in the injury time saw second half substitute Mohammad Juma Eid score the match-winning goal, bringing joy and relief to the UAE dugout as well the home fans in the stands.
The UAE kept their second position in the Group G with 12 points from six matches, while table toppers Vietnam took a two-point lead over the home team with a 4-0 win over Indonesia in the other game in Dubai on Monday night.
In the first half, the UAE turned the screws on Thailand with a dazzling display of speed and relentless passing in the midfield.
If not for some uncharacteristic misses from the prolific Ali Mabkhout, The Whites’ dominance in the scoresheet could have been much bigger in the first 45 minutes.
Inspired by the emphatic 4-0 win in the first match against Malaysia, Bert van Marwijk’s team took control of the midfield as the combination of Fabio Lima and Caio Canedo tormented the War Elephants.
The two Brazil-born players brought all their Samba magic to the turf as their quick one-twos and deft touches in the final third created plenty of opportunities for the home team.
And the first goal came very early in the first half.
After the breathtaking pace with which the UAE started the game, a long ball into the Thailand box saw two defenders make a desperate attempt to clear the ball. But the high ball fell on the feet of Caio just outside the penalty box.
The Brazilian showed great composure and sent an exquisite volley into the back of the net in the 14th minute to give the UAE an early lead.
Four minutes later, Thailand created a chance of their own, but Eakkanit Punya shot from a tight angle flew over the bar.
It was a rare lapse from the UAE backline that allowed Punya to be at the end of a teasing cross from the left flank.
The home team, though, soon regained their possession-based football and Ali Mabkhout had a glorious opportunity in the 27th minute.
But the prolific striker, after being released by a long ball, couldn’t beat the Thailand goalkeeper who threw his body to make a vital save for his team.
The second goal eventually arrived in the 34th minute, thanks to a heady mix of individual brilliance and outstanding interplay in the final third.
After a superb move, Lima advanced to the Thailand box with the ball at his feet. Twisting and turning against two defenders, the Brazilian played a short pass to Khalifa Alhammadi who played the ball to Ali Mabkhout.
The striker saw Lima’s run at the goalpost and sent a beautiful cross which Lima headed, beating the goalkeeper in his near post.
But Thailand, who had won the first leg against the UAE 2-1 in 2019 before the Covid-19 disrupted the World Cup qualifying campaign, emerged from the tunnel in the second half with renewed vigour.
There was more conviction in their play and they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession after the game resumed.
And they were rewarded for their positive response to the UAE’s first half dominance in the 54th minute when Mueanta found himself in the right place at the right time as the 18-year-old striker scored with a crisp volley from a close range.
The goal brought the Thais back into the game and the visitors showed plenty of skills with their short passes, keeping the UAE backline on their toes.
The Thai reaction pushed the UAE deep into their half as Van Marwijk’s men looked to protect their lead, putting more and more bodies behind the ball.
But then in the 74th minute, a long ball released Ali Mabkhout. The striker’s legendary finishing ability, though, deserted him again inside the box, as the famous number seven’s shot was blocked by the Thai defence.
Two minutes later, Ali Mabkhout found Lima inside the box, but the Brazilian could only hit the side netting.
Despite those missed opportunities, the UAE found the redemption when Mohammad Juma Eid showed great composure, scoring the last-gasp winner to keep the home team in the hunt for a World Cup place.