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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