Bert van Marwijk says belief in the collective will be key to the fast-improving UAE’s chances of reaching the 2022 World Cup, as they seek to get the final round off to a winning start against Lebanon on Thursday.
The national team, attempting to reach the global finals for only the second time in history, begin their Group A campaign at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai before taking on Syria in Jordan next Tuesday.
Drawn in the same group as Iran, South Korea and Iraq, the UAE know the importance of victory in the opener, with Lebanon the lowest-ranked side in the pool, at 98th. The UAE sit 30 places higher.
The hosts come into the match off the back of six victories, including four in their impressive conclusion to the second round in June, when they emerged as group winners. The top two teams book a spot at Qatar next year, with third place entering a series of play-offs for the opportunity to also make the finals.
“I said after the last qualifying round, after the four games, that I think we have a chance to go to the World Cup - and that’s still the same,” said Van Marwijk, who guided Saudi Arabia to Russia three years ago. “I trust my team; we are improving all the time. And you also have to be a little bit lucky.
“But we are preparing very well, and the players must believe in the way we want to play. They must also be able to do it, and must feel the help of the staff. We don’t need to be the best team in that we have the best players of all the countries. We need to be the best team.”
Despite Lebanon’s position in the Fifa standings, Van Marwijk has warned against complacency on Thursday. Lebanon squeezed into Round 3 on goal difference the final of the five best runners-up spots, although they showed enough in holding South Korea to a goalless draw that they are capable of an upset.
"We are ready for it, and we are concentrating only on this game," Van Marwijk said. "The first game is the most important game. This is the [final] round, so the resistance will be more than the last four games: you play against better teams.
“So it will be difficult, but I am satisfied with the preparation and I have a lot of trust in my team."
Asked which country he believed would provide the sternest test during the final round, Van Marwijk said: “I don’t know. I respect all the teams, but at the moment it doesn’t interest me. Because I’ve told you already: the first game is the most important. For me, Lebanon is the only game that counts.”
Meanwhile, opposite number Ivan Hasek knows well the UAE having spent a large portion of his managerial career in the emirates. After initially managing Al Wasl and Al Ahli, the Czech spent another six years in the country from 2014, comprising two spells at Fujairah either side of a stint with Emirates Club.
“I know the players here in the emirates,” Hasek said. “Of course, we know it’s top players with high quality and that they are the favourites for this game. But I believe the heart of our players and the spirit of the Lebanese team. This is very strong. We have dreams of going to the World Cup.”
Hasek will take charge of the team on Thursday for the first time having succeeded Lebanese coach Jamal Taha in July.
“For me, it’s a great honour to coach the national team of Lebanon,” he said. “I have the chance of coming to the national team to fight for qualification to the World Cup. Of course, it’s not for me but for everybody in Lebanon. And we believe that Lebanon has a big chance. That’s why I said ‘Yes’ directly, and for us tomorrow starts the way to go the World Cup.
“I believe in our team. We have many supporters behind us, many people in Lebanon and also outside, and we try to make the people happy. We’re not coming here for a pleasure game; we’re fighting together for the chance to go to the World Cup.”