A perceived straight fight at the summit of Group A could become a three-way scrap.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia were supposed to contest top spot in a pool containing Malaysia, East Timor and Palestine, but thus far the latter side have performed above expectations, with three points from their opening two fixtures.
Pitted against the UAE in this dual-qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup, Palestine go into their match with the Emiratis on Tuesday night focused on twin targets: victory takes them level with Mahdi Ali’s men, while the Ramallah encounter represents Palestine’s first competitive test in their homeland in four years.
It is also the first time they host an Arab opponent. A momentous match could therefore have major repercussions.
Palestine gave Saudi Arabia a scare in their opener in June only to lose 3-2 to a stoppage-time goal. A few days later, they rebounded to defeat Malaysia 6-0. That the UAE hit Malaysia for 10 last Thursday has done little to quell the optimism in the West Bank. Neither, too, Saudi’s 7-0 triumph against East Timor on the same night.
The pool’s two most prominent sides have six points each, but Palestine, buoyed by last year’s AFC Challenge Cup success and their subsequent progression to January’s Asian Cup, still sense an opportunity to upset the status quo.
“These big wins for the UAE and Saudi Arabia were natural because of the technical differences between the teams,” said Abdulnasser Barakat, the Palestine coach. “We don’t feel afraid of the UAE after their big win against Malaysia as the match gave us a good idea about how to face them.
“Their power is in their offence and they have many key players such as Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil. As we are playing at home, and in front of our own fans, we will try to force our own style and try to prevent them from scoring.”
As Barakat conceded, that could be easier said than done. Khalil scored four and Mabkhout three against Malaysia last week in Abu Dhabi. Abdulrahman, meanwhile, created five of those, and assisted Habib Fardan, as well.
At 70th in the world rankings, the UAE are positioned 49 places above tonight’s opponents and enter the match as favourites, even on the artificial turf of the Faisal Al Husseini International Stadium.
The Emiratis approach Tuesday’s assignment keen on stretching their perfect record to three wins from three ahead of their October 8 match in Jeddah. The Palestine clash may be a landmark contest, but Mahdi Ali insists playing a part in history will not distract his side.
“The ultimate goal of the first group game in Palestine is to unite the people,” Mahdi Ali said. “We are happy with our presence in Palestine and to perform in Palestinian territories.
“But I stress the importance of respecting the opponent and performing very seriously. We hope for success in the match.”
THE NATIONAL VERDICT
After beginning their Group A campaign against the pool’s two lowest-ranked sides, the UAE face their first real test with the trip to the Faisal Al Husseini Stadium. Given the occasion, the Palestinians will be additionally motivated, and a similar performance to their displays against Saudi Arabia and Malaysia will ensure the UAE encounter a difficult night. Mahdi Ali’s squad is fully fit, so he will not stray too far from the team that cast aside Malaysia last week. That said, a draw should be viewed as a favourable result.
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