The Emirati oversaw his side’s 3-0 loss at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City as the UAE’s woeful record against the Saudis continued. An eighth defeat from the past nine meetings caused the UAE to slip to fourth in Group B after four rounds, two points and two places outside the automatic qualification spots for Russia 2018.
Predictably, there were calls on social media for Mahdi Ali to stand down as manager immediately after the match, with “Mahdi Ali” and “Sack Mahdi” trending in the UAE.
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Mahdi Ali said his side were outdone by individual errors against Saudi Arabia – they conceded three goals in the final 19 minutes – but added: “Yes, I take responsibility because I’m the coach, even if there was an individual mistake. The coach is to blame because he is primarily responsible for the result and I accept that with an open mind.
“We were the better team in the first half, while in the second half, there were individual mistakes and a near-collapse. The exploitation of our mistakes was why the Saudi team were so good in the second half.”
The UAE next play Iraq in Abu Dhabi on November 15, with the Saudis facing a daunting trip to Japan. However, Mahdi Ali said the next round offers a real opportunity for his team to close the four-point gap on group leaders Saudi. Currently, they head the standings by two points from Australia, with Japan in third.
“The opportunity to qualify still exists, we are still at the beginning of the journey,” Mahdi Ali said. “For example, the Saudi team has a match against Japan, and if they lost in Tokyo and we win against Iraq, the difference between us and Saudi Arabia is one point, instead of four.
“That is a truer reflection of the group because the differences are not great between the four teams.”
Meanwhile, opposite number Bert van Marwijk said: “From the moment I came here more than a year ago I said we have a chance to qualify, and I still say that. For me, it’s very important the team’s playing better and better in each game, and there will be matches in the future that we don’t play so well.
“But you see the development in the team. You can see that now in moments and periods during a game they really want to play football, and in the players’ body language that they are feeling happy.”
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