Thursday cover: Grudge match arrives for UAE at turning point for World Cup hopes

The National's Sport cover for the Thursday, October 8 issue, featuring UAE coach Mahdi Ali preparing his team for a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia.

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The National's Sport cover for the Thursday, October 8 issue, featuring UAE coach Mahdi Ali preparing his team for a crucial 2018 World Cup qualfiier against Saudi Arabia.

John McAuley breaks down Thursday night's critical match in Jeddah – with the Emiratis already behind their Saudi neighbours, a loss could put World Cup 2018 hopes in serious danger:

“Mahdi Ali says the UAE will not be overawed by the task that awaits his side in today’s crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia.​

“The UAE go into the tie in Jeddah second in Group A after three matches, on seven points and two behind the Saudis, who boast a 100 per cent record. Only the top team in the pool is guaranteed progression to the third round of qualifying. The four best runners-up from the eight groups advance, with the Emiratis have the seventh best tally of the second-placed sides.”

Says UAE coach Mahdi Ali: “We are not afraid to meet any team and are used to playing in front of more than 70,000 spectators,” Mahdi Ali said. “I’ve never beaten Saudi Arabia as coach of the UAE, but we were unlucky the last time we played. Hopefully I can get my first win against them tomorrow.”

Ali Khaled, meanwhile, takes stock of a rising football rivalry between the Gulf neighbours:

“Step back from the clash between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Jeddah and take a wider view and you will see a heated rivalry developing between the Arabian Gulf’s two best teams.

“The UAE have not beaten Saudi Arabia since a last-minute Ismail Matar goal took the UAE to the final of the 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations in Abu Dhabi.

“Yet it was the UAE that went on to excel at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, finishing third, while Saudi Arabia departed at the group stage.

“The UAE are now ranked 70th in the world, fifth in Asia, and the highest Arab team. With Saudi Arabia at 88, the Emiratis are, statistically at least, better than their counterparts.

“But can they prove it where it really matters, on the pitch?”

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