The UAE reached the third and final round of World Cup qualification by finishing runners-up to Saudi Arabia in Group A last year. As such, they were drawn in Group B alongside the Saudis again, Asian champions Australia, five-time World Cup participants Japan, and Iraq and Thailand.
September 1: Japan 1-2 UAE
The UAE secured arguably their greatest victory on foreign soil by defeating the Asian heavyweights in Saitama. Ahmed Khalil scored a brilliant free-kick and a ‘Panenka’ penalty. Then the UAE held on. They were off to a flier.
September 6: UAE 0-1 Australia
The hosts were brought back down to Earth with a last-gasp defeat on an energy-sapping evening in Abu Dhabi. Substitute Tim Cahill grabbed the winner at the death.
October 6: UAE 3-1 Thailand
What should have been a routine victory was not without its problems. Ali Mabkhout scored twice but then Thailand halved the deficit. A tense and tight finish ensued, before Khalil made safe the points in injury time.
Also read: Reactions following UAE's win
October 11: Saudi Arabia 3-0 UAE
The UAE travelled to Jeddah for what was billed a group-defining encounter. They departed badly beaten, losing convincingly to a three-goal, 19-minute blitz from the Saudis.
Also read: Mahdi Ali says he is to blame for defeat
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November 15: UAE 2-0 Iraq
With manager Mahdi Ali’s job reportedly on the line, the UAE bounced back with a much-needed win courtesy of goals from Khalil and Ismail Matar. Their World Cup bid was back on track.
March 23: UAE 0-2 Japan
Looking to secure an unlikely double against Japan, the UAE were comfortably second best in Al Ain, outdone by early goals in each half. The pressure mounted on Mahdi Ali, with fans calling for his resignation.
Also read: Mahdi Ali will not resign despite defeat
March 28: Australia 2-0 UAE
Mahdi Ali’s departure was confirmed post-match, after the UAE had been beaten easily by a robust and resolute Australia in Sydney. The Emirati’s four-year tenure with the senior team was over.
June 13: Thailand 1-1 UAE
Edgardo Bauza’s first competitive match in charge ended in disappointment. The UAE needed Ali Mabkhout’s injury-time strike to snatch a draw, which ultimately felt like defeat. The UAE were all but out.
August 29: UAE 2-1 Saudi Arabia
Then they clung to that World Cup dream. The UAE rebounded from going a goal down, turning around the game through top-class finishes from Mabkhout and Khalil. It was a first win against the Saudis since 2007.