JEDDAH // The King Abdullah Sports City is an intimidating arena, a foreboding amphitheatre that sits alone on the outskirts of Jeddah, away from the din and the dash of Saudi Arabia’s second city.
It is where the hosts resume their hugely one-sided rivalry against the UAE on Tuesday night, for what is deemed a decisive qualifier on the road to the 2018 World Cup, when this cavernous bowl-shaped stadium is expected to come alive to the rumble of more than 60,000 spectators. If the UAE did not fully comprehend the magnitude of the meeting, then they will from the moment they arrive with ambitions of a first competitive victory against the Saudis on their own patch.
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Yet there was a subdued atmosphere at the ground on Monday night, 24 hours out from the main event. Under the lights and in front of the flash bulbs of the gathered media, Mahdi Ali put the UAE through their final training session. The stadium stayed eerily silent, but for those members of his backroom staff calling out instructions, the players sprinting and stretching in the only 15 minutes open to the press. It seemed a world away from the raucous reception the visitors are guaranteed on Tuesday.
The hush should not be confused for any anxiety, though. This was a quiet focus, an obvious determination to go into this pivotal tussle as prepared as possible.
In the press conference that preceded it, Mahdi Ali exuded a calm confidence, most likely eager to transfer his composure to his players. If he be assured of a positive performance at a baying King Abdullah Sports City, then so too should his team.
That was in stark contrast to opposite number Bert van Marwijk, who was abrupt and a little spikey throughout. Contrasting demeanours, yet sights set on a common goal. The stage is ready.
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