Mahdi Ali looks to Russia 2018, with love

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UAE players are put through their paces.

The UAE take their first step in World Cup qualification today against Timor-Leste at the Shah Alam Stadium in Malaysia with coach Mahdi Ali admitting booking a spot in Russia 2018 is as big of a dream for him as it is for his players.

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It has been 25 years since the Whites last featured in the World Cup finals – at Italia 1990 – and Mahdi believes it is this generation of players that deserves to seal a long-awaited place for the UAE at the elite quadrennial competition.

Mahdi and a majority of the national side, have graduated together through the various age group squads, and they should be brimming with confidence after they finished third at the Asian Cup in Australia earlier this year.

“These players have come up through the ranks and played for the UAE from the youth team all the way to the first team and this generation of players really deserves to play in the World Cup, and I also want to be part of achieving that dream with them,” Mahdi said ahead of Tuesday’s clash (kick-off: 12:00), the first for the Emiratis in their qualifying Group A.

“But we should not talk about this yet because we have an important match tomorrow and we have to focus on this game.”

Despite suffering a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of South Korea in a friendly last Thursday, Mahdi insists his squad are ready to take on Timor-Leste, who clinched a valuable point in their 1-1 draw with Malaysia in their opening qualifying game.

Coached by Brazilian Fabio Magrao, who formerly played for several UAE clubs including Al Jazira, Timor-Leste know a great deal about their West Asian rivals with a number of their players plying their trade in the Arabian Gulf League, like midfielder Rodrigo Silva, who plays for Emirates club.

“We’ve followed East Timor’s 1-1 draw with Malaysia in their first match and have enough information about them, just like they know us well because their coach used to play in the UAE, so do a number of their players,” added Mahdi, who is set to have favoured striker Ali Mabkhout back in the side after his missed the South Korea friendly due to fatigue.

“We saw many surprises in the first round of qualification – there are no big or small teams, whoever prepares harder on the field and works well will take the result I hope our team does its best to have a good start in what will undoubtedly be a difficult qualification campaign.”

Timor-Leste are competing at this stage in World Cup qualification for the first time after they sealed their spot in the group preliminaries with a 5-1 aggregate win over Mongolia last March.

Indeed, the first leg of that tie in Dili on March 12 was the very first qualifier played for Russia 2018.

Ranked 146, 73 spots below the UAE in the FIFA rankings, Magrao’s men are aware of the gulf in experience between the two sides but he is hoping they can pull off an upset.

“When we prepare you cannot just think about each team we face. We have to prepare our own team to know what we must do with and without the ball and prepare mentally to face the UAE who we know have played many World Cup qualifiers and have very good results in the last Asian Cup,” said Magrao.

“We started well with a good result over Malaysia and are satisfied with that but this is another game, we have to forget and focus on this game. But we are prepared and ready to face the UAE.”

But Magrao doesn’t think his players’ experience in the Arabian Gulf League will make much of a difference.

He added: “Our players who play in the UAE aren’t an advantage. This is another story now, this is the national team involving a different passion, it’s about nations and flags, a different game with different players.”

Saudi Arabia lie at the top of Group A with three points after beating Palestine 3-2 last week.

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Emirates Club's Silva (l) will be well known by the UAE.

Just a couple of hours after United Arab Emirates left the pitch at Shah Alam Stadium following a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at the hands of South Korea on Friday, their first opponents in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, minnows Timor Leste, were jubilant in their celebrations across town at the Bukit Jalil. Heading for defeat in their 2018 World Cup Qualifier against Malaysia, Ramon Sora nipped in front of the goalkeeper in the 93rd minute to head home an historic equaliser.

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That point means Timor Leste will be placed ahead of the UAE when the two sides meet in the same city on Tuesday. The West Asians are, of course, yet to take their first steps on the road to Russia but will be best advised to not underestimate their opponents from the opposite end of the continent.

Winning is no easy task when heading to Mongolia in mid-March, with falling snow and blustering wind not ideal conditions for a team from the tropics, and it proved a task too great for Malaysia last week. In what was only their third attempt at World Cup qualification, Timor Leste progressed to the group stage with ease, beating Mongolia 5-1 on aggregate thanks to a 4-1 victory at home and a 1-0 win away. The 1-1 draw in Kuala Lumpur made it three games unbeaten so far for a team with plenty of spirit and guts to make up for what they may lack in technical ability and tournament experience.

Tuesday’s game is the biggest game in the nation’s history – a competitive clash with one of the continent’s most developing nations who finished third at the Asian Cup, and whose brightest talent, such as Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and Al Ahli hitman Ali Mabkhout, are attracting interest from European clubs. Timor Leste only managed independence from Indonesia in 2002 and as both a country and a footballing nation, they are playing catch-up. Timor Leste are hoping that they can bridge the footballing gap through naturalisation of its expat community.

This former colony of Portugal, with a population of just over one million, has turned to Portuguese and Brazilian players to that end. National team coach Fabio Magrao is Brazilian and assists in identifying talent that is able and willing to represent O Sol Nascente (The Rising Sun). Of the current squad of 21 players, eleven of the squad ply their trade overseas in countries such as Brazil, Portugal, Indonesia, Thailand and the UAE. Of the eleven that started against Malaysia, only four were actually born in Timor Leste.

The all-important goal came from the head of towering Brazil-born defender Sora.

“It was a great feeling the best in my international career,” said the 23 year-old who naturalised in 2012. “I never had any regrets about playing for Timor Leste. There is amazing passion for football in the country, everyone is behind us. These days, we think we can always have success in games. We are improving and playing against teams like Malaysia and UAE will help us to improve more. We are more confident in every game and we never give up. We fight until the very last second and we showed that. We will do the same against UAE too.”

According to the coach, naturalisation is not a quick fix, rather a necessary course of action if the national team are to progress with a limited structure to the sport in the country.

“It’s a long-term plan from the Timor Leste Football Federation to improve the national team because we are a developing country and even don’t have a national league,” added Magrao.

The policy is working, with Timor Leste enjoying the best run of form in their brief history to date. The team has been climbing up FIFA’s rankings and now stands above traditional southeast Asian rivals such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Midfielder Rodrigo Silva has been labelled the team’s ‘secret weapon’ and the 27-year-old is not so secret to UAE fans who have seen him week-in, week-out since arriving at AGL side Al Shaab back in 2012. A loan spell with Al Wahda preceded a move to Emirates Club where Silva has found his feet since joining ahead of the 2013-14 season. His local knowledge of Tuesday’s opposition will certainly come in handy, but the Brazil-born star hasn’t yet managed to find his club form for his adopted country. Given the fact that the team does not meet all that often, it is understandable.

While Silva will be the most recognizable figure on the pitch. Others may become familiar come the final whistle.

Anggisu Barbosa is only 22 but has been playing senior international football for seven years, scoring his first goal against Cambodia in 2008 when he was still five months shy of his 16th birthday. Only four players in the history of the game have scored a goal at a more tender age. Energetic and cultured, the midfielder has been attracting interest from European clubs and it was his inswinging free-kick that led to his country’s dramatic equaliser against Malaysia.

Along with Saro’s aerial threat, there is Jairo Neto. Another Brazilian-born squad member, the forward plays his club football in Oman. Six foot plus and with a good deal of experience in his home country, despite his tender age of 21, Neto is an uncompromising player. His aggression sums up this Timor Leste team though the UAE can be happy that star striker Murilo de Almeida, who plays his club football in Japan with Nagano Parceiro and has six goals in seven international games, is unavailable for the game.

Further concern for the UAE will be that all the pressure is on Mahdi Ali’s Whites to secure an expected victory. For Timor Leste there is no pressure.

Any kind of result against the UAE would be deemed a success and coach Magrao’s attitude when it comes to tactics can be just as pragmatic as his approach to passports.

“We know that UAE are a very good team with lots of good players but we are looking forward to the challenge. We are not expected to win but we have some good players too and we are improving all the time,” said Magrao.

The UAE will rightly be made favourites to open their campaign for a first World Cup since their only outing at Italia ’90 off to a winning start, but if they happen to be off their game then there is little chance Timor Leste will let them off the hook.

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