Bert van Marwijk says he is relishing the challenge of taking on the No 1-ranked team in Asia on Thursday, while at the same time reiterating his belief in the UAE’s chances of reaching the 2022 World Cup.
The national team face Iran at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai, as they look to bounce back from last month’s disappointing opening to their final-round campaign. The UAE drew their first two matches - against Lebanon at home and away to Syria - and now host an Iran who sit top of Group A with maximum points.
Speaking at the pre-match press conference on Wednesday, Van Marwijk said: “Yes, this is a game I’m looking forward - I like these games. The UAE have never beaten Iran in their history. Iran is a very good opponent, No 22 in the world, No 1 in Asia. A lot of their players are playing in big competitions in Europe, in big clubs.
“So that makes the challenge, for me, bigger and bigger. I told my team a lot of times than maybe you don’t have all the time the best players, but we must be the best team. I have a lot of faith in my team.”
The UAE will be without captain Walid Abbas and key midfielder Ali Salmeen, who are both injured, although Van Marwijk emphasised that he has “a lot of trust” in their replacements.
The Dutchman also cited his faith in guiding the UAE to only a second World Cup in their history. The two top teams in the group qualify automatically for Qatar, while third place enters into a series of play-offs to reach the global finals.
“The confidence is the same,” Van Marwijk said. “If you really analyse the last two matches [0-0 against Lebanon, 1-1 against Syria], you can see that all the statistics were in our advantage. If we play the same match 10 times, I think we will win eight. But if you don’t take your chances then it’s possible that you cannot win.
“Also, that’s sport. That belongs to sport, especially football. But we are in the right direction for already a long time. You saw it before in the [final] four games [of the previous round in June]: we try to create our own style that everybody can recognise our way of playing. And we have many young players in our squad.
“So you are building a team, but at the same time you have to win games to qualify. Still, I have confidence that we are capable of qualifying. But we play against a very good opponent.”
Van Marwijk, who managed his native Netherlands to runner-up in the 2010 World Cup and then masterminded Saudi Arabia’s qualification to Russia three years ago, dismissed suggestions the UAE would play for a draw on Thursday.
“We play to win,” he said. “We always want to win, and everybody needs to see that we want to win. But if it’s so easy then you will win all the games.
“Maybe we made it a little bit difficult for ourselves. If you saw the last four matches in the former round, we played very well, scored lots of goals. Every game we were better than our opponent. And then you create expectations; I understand that.
“What level do you expect from a team who didn’t reach the World Cup for the last 31 years ago, and the last 20 years didn’t even come close to qualifying? Now we’ve created expectations by our way of playing. That’s already very good.
“But we have to be realistic, but also still realistic that we have a chance to qualify. For me, I’m here to go to the World Cup, because I did it two times and I’d like to do it a third time. If I don’t believe in a project and I don’t believe in a team I will go home, I will stay in Holland.
“So I believe in them. And we showed already that we can do it. You also need a little bit of luck. If we took our chances the last two games we could have easily beat the two teams. Then you have six points. But that’s also football. But for me only one thing counts: to go to the World Cup. And also to try to help the UAE to develop the football here.”