Bert van Marwijk has called on his UAE players to fight to keep alive their hopes of reaching the 2022 World Cup following Thursday’s damaging defeat to Iran.
The national team, seeking to qualify for a global finals for only the second time in the country’s history, lost 1-0 to Asia’s No 1-ranked side in Dubai, with Mehdi Taremi’s 70th-minute striker proving decisive.
The result, following on from successive draws to open the final round, leaves the UAE third in Group A, seven points off leaders Iran and five behind second-placed South Korea. Only the top two teams qualify directly to next year’s World Cup, although third place will enter a series of play-offs to make the Qatar tournament.
The UAE host fourth-placed Iraq, who are also winless, at the same Zabeel Stadium on Tuesday night.
Speaking immediately following the defeat to Iran, Van Marwijk said: “Of course we are disappointed. We lost to a very good opponent. I thought I said it here before the game, that they are the No 22 of the world and you could see it.
“In the first half and a part of the second half, we played well - if we could have found our free man, so we could also get the infinitive, a few small chances.
“But during the game, when the game goes towards the end, you saw or you felt that they have more capacity. You see they have players who almost all play in the European competitions. They are physically stronger, have more capacity.
“And there you see the difference: we have a few players that have to work in the morning. And that’s a difference. We tried everything. I cannot blame my players.”
The UAE were no doubt disappointed in the goal they conceded. Striker Ali Mabkhout misplaced a pass when close to goal and seemingly well-placed to shoot, leaving Iran to break up field and score. The visitors, who have maximum points from their three matches, had a chance to add to their tally, but Taremi’s late penalty was saved expertly by UAE captain Ali Khaseif.
“It is a shame that just before the 1-0 we get a chance to shoot and then the counter-attack… yeah, we gave away the goal,” Van Marwijk said. “That’s not nice.
“But that was, in my opinion, the big difference: now you come on a level with teams who have a big chance to go to the World Cup. They won the last nine or 10 matches. A lot of players for them, maybe 60 or 70 per cent, play in other countries and they have more capacity.
“But we will not give up. We go on. We fight. In the previous round we won four times [in the final four matches]. It’s football. The third place is also a place with a chance to go to the World Cup. So disappointed, but we stay and we fight.”
Thursday’s match seemed to turn on a crucial period just after the hour, when Iran centre-back Shojae Khalilzadeh was shown a straight red card for hauling down Mabkhout as he raced through on goal.
However, Khalilzadeh escaped punishment after the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) deemed - correctly - that Mabkhout was narrowly offside earlier in the move. The break in play lasted more than six minutes.
Afterwards, Van Marwijk said the fourth official had told him moments before the match that VAR was not in fact working, only to relay that the issue had been fixed minutes before the Mabkhout incident.
Nevertheless, the Dutchman acknowledged he now has a challenge to lift his players again for Tuesday’s must-win clash with Iraq.
“I think you saw how the players were at the end, they were very tired,” he said. “Because, of course, it costs a lot of strength and power playing a game like this against an opponent like this.
“But you must become stronger from the game – I will give that message also. I also told the players before the game: this is football. Here you see teams fighting for going to the World Cup, and that’s something different to what they’re used to.
“And that means also that, if you’re disappointed, if you’re really professional, you have to prepare for the next game. You cannot do anything else. And I will prepare for the next game.
“We have seven games. If you win seven games I think we will go to the World Cup. And third place is also possible to go. So we must keep fighting and learn from this. And also the players, they have to become stronger. That’s not possible for us to do that because we have not so much time. I cannot change that, the difference between the competitions.”