Mahdi Ali’s side have a campaign-defining five days ahead, with their final Group A fixtures against Palestine on Thursday and then Saudi Arabia next Tuesday. Both matches will be played at Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
The UAE are currently second in the pool, three points behind Saudi and therefore go into the double-header knowing two victories are most likely required if they want to advance to the final stage of qualification. Only the group winners are guaranteed to progress, although the four best runners-up will also proceed.
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Esmail, the Al Ahli midfielder, says the team are well aware of what is at stake, but he remains convinced the UAE have the talent and resolve to maintain their chance of qualifying for Russia in two years’ time.
“Now we have two difficult games,” Esmail said at a recent Adidas event. “But with all the fans, with coach Mahdi, with us players, we can do something good for the UAE. We can fight, we can do everything, we will give everything for the UAE for these two games to qualify to the other round.
“For me, especially with this team, I like when we are under pressure because always when we’re under pressure we do something good. I believe in that.”
Esmail’s confidence comes from the camaraderie within the team. Mahdi Ali has guided most of the side through various age-group tournaments, including the London Olympics in 2012, success at the 2013 Gulf Cup and to bronze at last year’s Asian Cup in Australia - their best performance on foreign soil.
The one remaining target, of course, is competing at football’s showpiece. The UAE have qualified only once before for the finals, in 1990, so Esmail recognises the need to seize this opportunity.
“That’s why,” he said. “Because this group has played everything: Olympics, Gulf Cup, Asian Cup. Only the World Cup is left. Now we have this and we have to fight in these two games because in four more years nobody knows if we’ll stay together or not. That’s why it’s very important for us.
“We are like a family, we can do anything. For maybe seven and eight years now the players are all together, like one man, like one family. We have played so many competitions, but we need this.
“As I’ve said before and I tell you now, coach Mahdi he is like our father, like our big brother. He always tries to do better, always tries to help us. He will do his best now to qualify and we will help him to qualify in these two games.”
Much will depend on Omar Abdulrahman’s ability to carry the UAE to successive victories, with the Al Ain playmaker is fine form at present. However, he has often struggled against Saudi Arabian teams, who typically target the midfielder.
However, Mohanad Salem, his clubmate at Al Ain, insists the UAE are not worried about Abdulrahman labouring against the Saudis.
“These kind of things do not affect the team, but we will overcome whatever problems we face from the other teams,” he said. “We’re focusing only on the win.
“It will be great if we qualify and, for me personally, it would be a great victory. We’re giving everything in these matches and waiting to do whatever it takes to win. This team is together from young, most of us are around 24 years old and so we can qualify and do something good for our country.”
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