UAE manager Bert van Marwijk says he is well aware of the significance of Tuesday’s potentially pivotal World Cup qualifier against Iraq in Dubai, but insisted his side will fight to turn around their campaign.
The UAE are still seeking a first victory in the final round of qualification following two draws and a defeat thus far. The disappointing run of opening results has left the national team third in Group A, five points off the automatic places for Qatar 2022. Third place, however, does offer an opportunity to reach the global finals, albeit through a series of play-offs.
Van Marwijk's men go into the match against Iraq at the Zabeel Stadium off the back of Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Iran at the same venue. The highest-ranked team in Asia, Iran, currently top the final-round standings on maximum points.
Like the UAE, Iraq have also yet to win and sit in fifth place with the same two points from three fixtures. The two sides met each other in a friendly in Dubai in January, when they drew 0-0.
Asked on Monday about his thoughts heading into what many consider a must-win match, Van Marwijk said: “That every game we play is a very important game and also a very difficult game.
“The fact that we played Iraq a few months ago is important for us, so that we know and I know them better than I see them on the television.
“We prepare very well also for this game. In the last game against Iran, we played very well. I’m looking forward also for this game. And I realise that it’s very, very important. We have seven matches to go and we still have a chance. As long as we have a chance we fight.”
The UAE did perform admirably initially against Iran on Thursday, but towards the end struggled to cope with their opponents’ superior physicality. Iran, who have qualified for six of the past eight World Cup finals, took the points eventually via Mehdi Taremi's 70th-minute strike.
The UAE, meanwhile, are bidding to reach the World Cup for only the second time in the country’s history. On Monday, Van Marwijk acknowledged the need to quickly lift his players to respond against Iraq.
“They were very tired,” the Dutchman said. “For most of them, maybe for all of them, it was a very, very tough match. Of course, a lot of physical strength [exerted] also, but they have recovered.
“On the other side, everybody saw that we played well in the first half and we could reach the same level as Iran, the No 22 in the world. So while on one side we’re very disappointed, that also gives confidence that we are on the right way.”
Van Marwijk, back in his second stint as manager, will be buoyed by the availability once more of Walid Abbas after the UAE captain missed the Iran encounter through injury. However, midfielder Ali Salmeen remains out.
Dick Advocaat, the Iraq manager who in 2005 spent a brief time in charge of the UAE, is hoping, too, for a result to kick-start his side’s campaign. Iraq have drawn two games and lost one, and have yet to even score.
“[The UAE match is] a big challenge,” he said. “Both teams have some good players, but also both teams have only two points. That’s not enough after three matches. So for both teams it’s very important to get a result, and that will be the most important thing.”
Advocaat would not be drawn on whether Tuesday’s game represented an early shoot-out for third place in the group. Currently, Lebanon sit sandwiched between the teams in fourth, on two points also.
“You have to be realistic and honest, but sometimes it’s difficult to say,” the Dutchman said. “We have to try our best every game to get results and at the end we can see in which position we are. It’s very difficult to say after three games what's the situation. Let’s wait for the next three or four games when we know more.”