Saudi Arabia again the most likely obstacle for UAE to overcome on road to Russia 2018

With Australia and Japan deservedly favourites to progress from Group B, UAE look set to do battle for play-off spot, and World Cup dream, with familiar opponents.

The UAE are drawn Asian Football Confederation general secretary Dato' Windsor John. Fazry Ismail / EPA
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Once again, Saudi Arabia seem the most obvious roadblock on the UAE’s improbable route to Russia.

The Gulf neighbours, paired with one another in Tuesday's draw for the final round of qualification to the 2018 World Cup, are familiar foes, regularly contesting the region's principal prizes, forever vying for the place at its summit.

Often, the Saudis have come out on top. Round Two of this lengthy and laborious campaign provided the most recent evidence of a rivalry tilted heavily in one camp’s favour, when the UAE finished second to the Saudis in Group A. Mahdi Ali’s men concluded the pool three points worse off, needing instead to advance as one of four best runners-up.

The UAE lost 2-1 In Jeddah last October — a last-gasp defeat but wholly deserved — to make it seven successive reverses against Saudi, then improved significantly to draw 1-1 two weeks ago at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. By then, though, both sides were already guaranteed to progress.

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Moving forward this time appears infinitely more difficult. Australia and Japan form the top two seeds in Group B and represent the most obvious candidates to automatically qualify for the finals, while the team to finish third must then negotiate a play-off with the third-ranked side from Group A. If successful, the winners face an inter-continental, two-legged tie with a Concacaf representative.

Yet the UAE must focus solely on the immediate task. They will be granted an early indicator of exactly where they stand, and how their chances should ultimately come down to their clashes with Saudi Arabia, when they open in September with the gruesome double-header away to Japan and then at home to Australia.

The UAE were fortunate to get past Japan, entrants in the past five global finals, in last year’s Asian Cup quarter-finals, before succumbing to Australia, the hosts and eventual winners, in the last four. This time round, the relatively weak Iraq and Thailand complete Group B.

The matches against the Saudis, scheduled for October 11 (away) and then August 31, 2017 (home), are therefore potentially defining; they will likely hold the key to unlocking almost three decades of World Cup disappointment.

Gulf neighbours, familiar foes, direct combatants for a place at Russia 2018. It is a gruelling assignment, but the UAE need to banish their recent record against Saudi if they are to hold any hope of reaching the finals in Russia, of breaking free from the shackles they typically encounter when facing them.

Undoubtedly, the UAE have the talent. Now they must display the temperament to make a long-held dream a reality.

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