The United Arab Emirates will face old foes Saudi Arabia in the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup after being drawn alongside their neighbours in Tuesday’s draw in Kuala Lumpur.
Mahdi Ali’s side will also play Malaysia, Timor-Leste and Palestine in Group A as they bid to reach only their second World Cup in history.
First up for the UAE on the road to Russia, is a trip to Timor-Leste – ranked 152nd in the world by FIFA – on June 16.
Crucial to their chances of advancing to the next stage of qualification will be UAE’s results against Saudi Arabia, who they will host on October 8 of this year before travelling to Riyadh for a potentially decisive final group game on March 29, 2016.
The two sides last met at the semi-final stage of the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations, UAE falling to a 3-2 defeat.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) April 14, 2015
The World Cup qualifying campaign also serves as 2019 Asian Cup qualifying, which will be hosted by the UAE.
Four teams from the AFC are guaranteed to compete at Russia 2018 with a potential fifth should an Asian team win the intercontinental playoff against the fifth-placed team from South American qualifying.
The eight group winners from the second round of AFC qualifying and the four best runners up will advance to the third qualifying round, which consists of two groups of six.
The top two of each group will then automatically advance to the 2018 World Cup, with the two third-placed teams going into a qualifying playoff to compete for a right to play the intercontinental playoff.
2018 World Cup qualification – AFC second round
Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Malaysia
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Group C: China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei
Group G: South Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, North Korea, Yemen
The UAE are guaranteed to be a top seed for Tuesday’s 2018 World Cup/2019 Asian Cup second-round qualification draw after retaining their spot as the continent’s fifth-best side in the latest FIFA rankings.
The Whites moved up one spot to 68th in the list – which was released on Thursday – despite declining to play in last month’s international window.
This saw them safely inside the top eight nations in Asia, meaning they will go into the pot to head one of Groups A-H during the ceremony at JW Marriott Hotel, Kuala Lumpur at 17:00 (13:00 UAE).
Mahdi Ali’s men enter at the second stage, where they will be drawn against teams ranked 1-34 in Asia and six first-round winners from the countries ranked 35–46.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) April 9, 2015
Each group will contain five teams to play home-and-away round-robin matches.
The eight group winners and four best runners up advance to third round and qualify for the next Asian Cup, a competition the UAE will host.
The top two teams from the two groups will automatically be granted entry to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with a fourth round featuring a play-off between the two third-placed teams of each groups to go into a two-legged inter-confederation showdown a possibility depending upon the Asian Football Confederation’s allocation.
The Whites have only ever made it to the World Cup finals once before, losing all three Group D matches in Italy 25 years ago against eventual winners West Germany.
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