AL AIN // Ismail Matar says Tuesday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Australia is the most important match of his international career, with the UAE veteran insisting the players remain 100 per cent behind manager Mahdi Ali.
Matar, 33, captained his national team in Thursday's damaging 2-0 defeat to Japan at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, a result that leaves the UAE's chances of reaching Russia next year looking increasingly slim.
With only four rounds remaining in the final phase of qualification, the UAE sit fourth in Group B, four points off the two automatic berths that take them to the World Cup. Saudi Arabia top the standings by virtue of their superior goal difference on Japan, with Australia three points back in third.
■ Analysis: Japan earn revenge to leave UAE hopes dented
■ Reaction: Mahdi Ali focused on Australia, not his future
■ Maya Yoshida: Japan 'buzzing' following win over UAE
The UAE next face the Asian champions in Sydney on Tuesday, knowing they need a positive result to have any hope of making what would be only a second World Cup appearance for the country.
Matar, a 115-cap forward and scorer of the winning goal in the 2007 Gulf Cup final, was asked following the Japan loss if Australia now represented the biggest match of his 14 years with the national team.
“Sure,” he said. “You know the Australia team is not an easy opponent we have to face. They drew [against Iraq], so it makes sense for us and is a good opportunity for us to take our chance.
“They have to win. They play at home, but I believe we have a chance to do a good result.”
Matar was given a rare start for the UAE on Thursday in Ahmed Khalil’s absence and awarded the captain’s armband. The Al Wahda forward led his side’s fight against Japan in Al Ain, but the hosts struggled for large spells. Despite missing two gilt-edged chances through Ali Mabkhout and Ismail Al Hammadi, goals in either half from Yuya Kubo and Yasuyuki Konno secured the visitors a crucial victory.
“Football is always about small details,” Matar said. “They had chances and they scored from them; we had clear chances to score and come back, but this is what happened. When you miss in that type of game then you pay the price, and we paid the price.
“We forget about the game — we have to. We have to concentrate on our next game. I hope we can achieve a good result.”
The defeat only increased the pressure on Mahdi Ali. The UAE manager has enjoyed sustained success with this group of players at different age-group levels, but has been criticised heavily since last October’s capitulation to Saudi Arabia in Jeddah. He was asked about his future immediately following the Japan match, but said he had no intention of stepping down. Matar lent his support, too.
“This is for the federation [to decide],” he said. “Our coach is with us now, so we have to face the problems together. We have to focus on the next game together and that is it.”
Asked if the players remained steadfastly behind Mahdi Ali, Matar said: “Sure, sure. And we will be until the last day.”
Irrespective of the clamour surrounding Mahdi Ali, Matar said it was upon the players to respond to the Japan defeat. They have a quick turnaround — the squad flew to Sydney directly after Thursday’s qualifier — and face an Australia side still smarting from their 1-1 draw against Iraq in Tehran.
As one of the team’s more experienced players, Matar accepted he would have to help lift spirits.
“This is what it means to be a professional,” he said. “You have to just forget and let it go, try to learn from the mistakes and make a good recovery.
“We have to prepare. This is the only chance we have. We have the quality and belief in ourselves. This is what we have to do: forget today and focus on Australia. We hope to get a good result.”
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