Fired-up boss Mahdi Ali has declared the UAE “must play with our hearts” to stay on track for World Cup 2018 qualification, beginning with Thursday night’s must-win clash against Palestine.
The Whites face a decisive double header in the next five days as the second round in the AFC process ends with a pair of matches at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
The hosts are sandwiched between both opponents in Group A, with Palestine third and Saudi Arabia leading. Victory in the two games are almost certainly required to progress to the next stage and Ali, 50, was keen to emphasise this message.
He said: “We know we have a very important game (against Palestine) and we know it will be very tough. We know we don’t have any option, we have to win this game and keep our chances to qualify to the final round.
“We have to play with our hearts and be patient to get what we want. No matter which players play, we’re playing for the UAE flag and will fight to the final whistle.”
Only the eight AFC pool winners are guaranteed to make the third round, with a cumulative-results formula deciding the four-best run- ners-up to join them. Table-toppers Saudi Arabia are three points and three goals ahead of the UAE.
They face whipping boys Malaysia today as good as guaranteeing first place will be out of the host’s reach before Tuesday’s meeting in Abu Dhabi as goal difference determines a tiebreak. This means they must beat Palestine and get themselves in the best-possible position to go through as one of the four best runners-up.
When the two nations last met in September, a drab goalless draw was played out in Al Ram on a historic day as the UAE became the first Arabic nation to play a qualifier on the West Bank. The Lions of Canaan proved dogged opponents, restricting their challengers to a series of pot shots.
The Whites’ hope of making the breakthrough this time have been affected by leading marksman Ali Mabkhout’s hamstring injury.
The 29-goal international was given a “very low” chance of featuring today by Ali, although a fitness problem for Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman is not expected to keep him out. The squad had also previously lost Al Jazira goalkeeper Ali Khaseif and Al Wahda prospect Mohamed Al Akbari.
“We are very confident that our team is ready for this game, regardless of all the injuries we have,” Ali insisted. “Any 11 players in the squad, they are able to do their best and to win this game.”
Palestine qualified for the 2015 Asian Cup and have avoided defeat in their last five Group A fixtures.
Skipper Abdelatif Bahdari was confident about a positive result, despite acknowledging the fearsome talent in the opposition ranks.
He said: “We know that the UAE have a very good team. The best two players now in Asia are Omar Abdulrahman and (2015 AFC Player of the Year) Ahmed Khalil.
“It’s a very important match and we came here to play with our motivation to win. This is very important for the nation of Palestine.”
The UAE’s build-up took a sad turn at the weekend when technical assistant coach Lars Gansauer died of a heart attack during training. Ali made sure to pay tribute to his long-serving colleague on Wednesday.
He said: “We are very sorry for his family, we lost a very good person. We had a very good relationship with him and are very sorry.”