Mahdi Ali unconcerned with history as UAE ‘not afraid’ in visiting Saudi Arabia

John McAuley reports from Jeddah, where the UAE are set to face close rivals Saudi Arabia in a key contest in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
The UAE nationall football team shown during a training session in Jeddah prior to Tuesday night's match against Saudi Arabia. Photo Courtesy / Aletihad
The UAE nationall football team shown during a training session in Jeddah prior to Tuesday night's match against Saudi Arabia. Photo Courtesy / Aletihad

JEDDAH // Mahdi Ali has played down the significance of the UAE’s eagerly anticipated World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, saying the encounter will not prove decisive in his side’s bid to reach Russia 2018.

The match at the King Abdullah Sports City has been billed as a potentially defining one in a tightly contested section, even though it represents only the fourth matchday of the 10-round final qualification stage.

The UAE currently and Japan are currently level on six points following last week’s 3-1 victory at home to Thailand, with the Saudis one point better off having held Asian champions Australia to a 2-2 draw in Jeddah.

More UAE v Saudi Arabia

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The top two teams in Group B will guarantee a place at the World Cup, leaving the third-placed side to enter a series of play-offs to make the global finals. At present, only one point separates leaders Australia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and fourth-placed Japan. The UAE have appeared at a World Cup once before, in 1990.

“It’s a very important match for both teams,” Mahdi Ali said. “However, this group will not be decided by this game, because the qualification will not be confirmed until the final moments. There is no difference between the four teams at the top: the gap between them is only one point, which is nothing at all. Nothing will be decided in the first round of fixtures at least.

“Only by the last game will it be confirmed who goes to the World Cup and who is eliminated because the teams are very strong. Our group is stronger than the other group and that puts us under pressure, because the teams are very close to each other. That is a disadvantage, but we still have a chance.”

Nevertheless, the UAE’s chances will receive a substantial boost should they return from Jeddah with victory. The UAE have traditionally not fared well against their neighbours, though: in 33 matches, they have won six times, the last coming in 2007. Moreover, the UAE have yet to register a competitive victory against their Gulf rivals in Saudi Arabia. Mahdi Ali has faced them three times as UAE manager, including twice in the previous round when his side lost 2-1 in Jeddah 12 months ago and then drew 1-1 in Abu Dhabi in March.

“I don’t think about history, that’s in the past,” he said. “Football is about focusing for 90 minutes inside the pitch. We’ll try to change this record in the next game.

“My opinion on our opponents is not that important, because the Saudi team is very historical and they have a very good track record and very good reputation in Asia. They did very well against Australia most recently, but we cannot say anything about the qualification because this is too early.”

Asked about playing in front of more than 60,000 spectators at the King Abdullah Sports City, Mahdi Ali replied: “We are not afraid of the audience. This is our second home. We will be OK with the big audience. We are not afraid to face it.”

Meanwhile, defender Mohammed Fawzi has been ruled out with injury, adding to the UAE’s issues at right-back. Already, first-choice Mohammed Ahmed is absent, so Mahdi Ali will decide between Al Ahli duo Abdulaziz Sanqour and Abdulaziz Haikal.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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Published: October 10, 2016 04:00 AM

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