The UAE insist they can keep alive their chances of making it to the World Cup by inflicting defeat on unbeaten South Korea on Tuesday night – but acknowledge they will need the backing of fervent home support to make it happen.
The national team would have secured third place in the qualifying group – and thus a place in the play-off phase – had they not lost to Iraq in a dismal game in Saudi Arabia last week.
They still have a one-point lead over the Iraqis ahead of the final match day. However, while Iraq will face last-placed Syria in their final match, the UAE will simultaneously be playing South Korea, the top-ranked side who have not lost a game in the nine matches in the group so far.
Despite the daunting task, defender Abdulaziz Haikal says the home team are capable of advancing, and has implored fans to help them in their bid to do so at the Al Maktoum Stadium.
“We still have hopes to get third place and qualification is still in our hands,” Haikal said.
“We will fight to the end, but we need the support of the fans. If they are here, we can win the match.
“Our preparation has been like any other match, but we realise the importance of this. We have to fight to win. We are preparing technically and mentally for this match.
“We are representing our country and our flag. We need help from the fans, and we promise them we will change the picture from the last performance.”
Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the UAE coach, said fans will see a marked improvement from the listless display against Iraq, which culminated in a 1-0 defeat.
“I know we didn’t produce the performance everyone expected from us against Iraq,” Arruabarrena said.
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“There were no clear chances for scoring. Anyone who watched the match on TV would have fallen asleep because it was such a bad match.
“But [against South Korea] we will see another performance. I trust the players. I have seen at training that they want to make something happen.”
The hosts’ task has been made all the more challenging by the absence, through suspension, of Ali Mabkhout.
The striker has scored more goals – 14 – than any other player in the world in the course of qualifying for the World Cup.
“We have to win the game by any means possible,” Arruabarrena said.
“Iraq made it a very tough match. They closed the space and there were no clear chances. Now for us, we have to find a win by any way possible.”
Paulo Bento, the South Korea coach, said “it is not our business” who takes third place, as he pointed out, “we have done our job, we achieved our goal” having already secured qualification.
“In the last game, we went past Iran and achieved first position,” Bento said, referencing his side’s 2-0 win in Seoul on Thursday.
“Now we would like to keep that position. That is enough for us to be motivated and focused for the game.”
The Portuguese coach is committed to winning the qualifying group, rather than experimenting with personnel or resting players.
“We will choose the best starting XI possible to achieve our goal,” Bento said.
“We want to close these qualifiers in the best possible way, gaining the three points. This is an important game for us because winning this game will mean we finish in first place in the group.
“For us it is a very important game so we are not going to concede opportunities to the players dependent on whether they have played more or less minutes in the previous games.”
Kim Yong-gwon, the South Korea centre-back who scored in the win over Iran, echoed Bento’s comments.
“We have already qualified, yes, but we are a team that try to put everything into each match,” Kim said.
“There will be less pressure, of course, but we will try to play with confidence. All the players know what we need to do on the pitch. We will put 100 per cent into the game.”