ABU DHABI // Mahdi Ali says his UAE side must play with their hearts in what he described as a must-win match against Palestine on Thursday.
The UAE enter a crucial five-day spell in qualification for the 2018 World Cup, concluding their Group A campaign with the double-header against Palestine and then Saudi Arabia next Tuesday. Both matches take place at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
Mahdi Ali’s men are currently second in the pool, three points behind the Saudis, and most probably require successive victories to progress to the final stage of qualification for Russia 2018. Only each group winner is guaranteed to advance, alongside the four best runners-up.
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Palestine, third in the standings, should offer a stern test having held the UAE to a 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture in Al Ram last September. They prepared for the return tie with an extended training camp in Morocco.
“We know we have a very important game tomorrow and know it will be very tough,” Mahdi Ali said. “We need to be concentrated, we have to be calm, but we have to play with our hearts and be patient to get what we want from the game. We are very confident in the players and the team.
“We know we don’t have any option; we have to win this game and maintain our chances of qualifying to the final round. Hopefully we will achieve a positive result.”
The UAE’s hopes have been hindered by injuries to key players, with Ali Mabkhout expected to sit out of the Palestine match as he recovers from a hamstring problem sustained while playing for Al Jazira in the Asian Champions League last week.
Meanwhile, Omar Abdulrahman picked up a “very small injury” in training earlier this week, however the Al Ain playmaker looks likely to start Thursday. Both players were being assessed late Wednesday.
“We are very confident our team is ready, regardless of all the injuries,” Mahdi Ali said. “Any 11 players in the squad are able to do their best and to win this game. No matter which players play, we’re playing for the UAE flag and will fight to the final whistle.
“We know that Palestine have prepared very well for this game, for almost 25 days or maybe even one month. Although their chances of qualifying are almost nil, they’re trying to do their best in the upcoming games.
“But we are concentrating on our team, we have to first be ready, be very patient, be focused on the game regardless of the opponent. We are ready for all scenarios that could happen in the game.”
Palestine come into the match on the back of a four-match unbeaten streak in qualification, although they will recognise the threat posed by their opponents, particularly the attacking talents of Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, the current Asian Footballer of the Year.
“We know the UAE have a very good team, and the best two players maybe now in Asia are Omar and Ahmed Khalil,” said Abdelatif Bahdari, the Palestine captain. “The UAE play very good football, so it’s going to be difficult for us.
“But we have an excellent spirit to play a very good match tomorrow and we’ll try to do our best and get the points. It’s a very important match and we’re coming here not only for a football match: We’ve been working the past seven years for the Palestine federation, something that will reflect us all. It’s not just a football match, it’s for the nation.”
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