Bert van Marwijk confident of World Cup progress as UAE prepare to host remaining qualification matches

Group G to play the rest of their fixtures in Dubai, with the national team five points behind leaders Vietnam but with a game in hand

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Bert van Marwijk says he has had a “good feeling” about the UAE national team since his return as manager, as preparations continue for the resumption of World Cup qualification in June.

The Dutchman is enjoying his second stint with the side having reprised the role in December by succeeding Jorge Luis Pinto. It marked almost a full year to the day after his first spell in charged ended.

Van Marwijk, 68, is currently overseeing his third training camp since his reappointment, with this summer’s rescheduled World Cup qualifiers the focus. The latest get-together concludes on Monday with a friendly against India.

Asked on Saturday at the Zabeel Stadium what has pleased him most about the UAE squad since his return, Van Marwijk said: “I think they have improved. Because we worked with a lot of young players and I saw that they were physically stronger and they have gotten better. It’s given me a good feeling.”

Earlier this month, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided that all Group G's remaining fixtures would be staged in Dubai from June 3-15, to help negate travel restrictions put in place because of the pandemic.

Currently fourth in the five-team group, the UAE have four matches to play compared to each of the other sides’ three. They sit five points off leaders Vietnam, whom they face in the final qualifier on June 15.

Strangely, given the ongoing impact of the pandemic, Van Marwijk finds the UAE in exactly the same position as when he left in December 2019. The qualifiers have been repeatedly postponed, with the national team slated until last month to have a double-header this week against Malaysia and Indonesia. The Football Association has since won the right to host all eight outstanding games in Group G in June as the AFC opted for centralised venues.

Only the top team in each group are guaranteed to progress to the third round of qualification, although the four best runners-up advance also.

“We know our opponents because we played them one time already,” Van Marwijk said. “Originally we were to have three games at home, now we have four. So I think we have a good chance, because we know the opponents, we know how to play against them.

“And, if everybody stays fit … I cannot guarantee anything, but I think we have a good chance to qualify for the next round.”

Even so, Van Marwijk acknowledged the challenge provided by playing so many matches in such a short space of time. The UAE, set to gather for their final pre-qualifying camp on May 15 or 16, restart their campaign against Malaysia on June 3, then take on Thailand four days later and Indonesia on June 11 before meeting Vietnam.

“It’s very difficult, but I cannot change it. I have to deal with it,” Van Marwijk said. “We have already spoken about it with the whole staff and we will do everything as professional as possible. We will also invite a few people I know who are specialists in these things.

“Because our opponents play three matches in the same time, so it’s playing and recovering, playing and recovering. And then the climate. So we have to think very professionally and we will do that.”

Van Marwijk thanked the FA for allowing the national team time together for the trio of camps thus far this year, but said he did not envisage playing many friendlies in May in the build-up to the qualifiers. He said he prefers instead to use the time to work on playing style and tactics.

The former Netherlands and Saudi Arabia manager, a World Cup runner-up with his homeland in 2010 and mastermind of Saudi’s qualification to the 2018 finals, was however reluctant to be drawn on his decision once more not to select former captain Ismail Matar in his squad.

“I will not answer questions regarding why I nominate a player, yes or no,” Van Marwijk said. “I’m building a new team and in the new team are a lot of young players. I’m satisfied with the players I have now and I will work together with them hopefully for a long time.”