Mahdi Ali, the UAE coach, says he feels “less pressure” ahead of their all-important game against Saudi Arabia in the 2018 World Cup qualifying match.
Saudi Arabia, who top the Asian Group A on 19 points, have already qualified regardless of the result against the UAE in the final pool game on Tuesday night at the Mohammed bin Zayed stadium.
If the UAE win by a two-goal margin, they can ascend to the top of the group while Saudi Arabia go through as one of the four best second-placed teams into the third and final round of the 12-team phase.
The UAE are three points behind Saudi Arabia in second and their chances to qualify as one of the best second-place teams — if they lose — will be decided by the outcome of the other games.
“There was a lot of pressure when we played Palestine [which the UAE won 2-0 five days ago] because we had to win that game to be where we are now,” Mahdi Ali said at the pre-match news conference.
“I think for this game the pressure is not like the previous game. The previous game was more pressure on the players.
“We were left with two critical games to play and the match against Palestine was the first and to keep our chances alive in the qualifier. So the pressure in the previous game was more.
“For us, we are always confident of our players regardless of the circumstances we have had before the game against Palestine, because of the injuries, suspensions and on what happened to my assistant.”
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Mahdi Ali was referring to Lars Gansauer, the video analyst and statistician of the national team and a close associate of the Emirati coach, who died of a heart attack during the team’s training session at the Zayed Sports City on March 20.
“But we are always optimistic,” Mahdi Ali said.
“We have seen off difficult times by rallying together and deliver. I wish we will do the same when we face Saudi Arabia tomorrow.
“One of our dreams is to qualify for the World Cup. For many players it will be the last chance to play in a World Cup qualifier or rather the opportunity to play in a World Cup. It is not an easy task but we will fight until the end.”
Mahdi Ali’s men went down to Saudi Arabia 2-1 in their first meeting in Jeddah on October.
“A lot has changed since then,” Mahdi Ali said. “I was quite satisfied the way we played against Palestine last week. Obviously our objective is to win and we are ready for it.”
Doubts linger relating to the fitness of Ali Mabkhout, the UAE striker, and Ismail Matar, the veteran forward who has been recalled to the squad.
“We still have 24 hours to decide if they are ready,” the coach said.
“They have both been training but we’ll take a final assessment on their fitness before naming the line-up.”
For Saudi Arabia, national pride will be at stake, and their Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk believes the UAE and his team are the best in the group.
“Everybody knows we are already qualified for the last round for Russia, our goal difference is in our favour,” he said.
“But we will not consider that, we want to play in a way that we reach our own level. We want to win this game, so we will not think about goal difference during the game.”
Van Marwijk insisted his team is just under the level of Japan and South Korea, and thinks China, Australia, and Iran to be the main contenders for 2018 Russia.
“There will be a lot of good teams in the next round,” he said. “I think we have a chance and the UAE, if they qualify, will have a chance.
“In this game, the UAE will be looking to win and we will also play to win. I think it will be a nice attacking game for the fans to enjoy. I hope the stadium will be full.”