UAE can still qualify for Russia

UAE can still qualify for Russia

In the end, a piece of Tim Cahill magic in Abu Dhabi denied them, but the United Arab Emirates can still feel confident about advancing to their first World Cup finals in almost three decades.

The UAE lost 1-0 to Australia in their second match in Group B of Asia's final qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday as ex-Everton star Cahill came off the bench to score in the 75th minute, guiding home Brad Smith's first-time cross from the left.

But, however disappointed the Emiratis were after the game, they are still in decent shape on the road to Russia 2018, having won 2-1 away to Japan five days earlier.

Italia '90 was the one and only World Cup finals' appearance for the UAE.

A mark of how much times have changed in the past 26 years is who they faced in Italy, under their Brazilian coach Carlos Alberta Parreira in Group D. The nations of West Germany -- the eventual champions beat them 5-1 at the San Siro Stadium with Lottar Matthaus scoring a brace -- and Yugoslavia no longer exist. Colombia were the other team in their group.

They lost all three group matches, scoring two goals, and conceding nine. They've failed to come close to qualifying for six consecutive World Cups since then.

But with the 2016 squad boasting regional superstars like playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and potent forwards Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil, the UAE have every reason to believe that they're capable of qualifying for Russia at the expense of one of Asia's heavyweights.

Coach Mahdi Ali said: "UAE has been working very hard to qualify for the second time. This time we have a very good chance and we have a very good team. I think the UAE deserves to qualify for the World Cup."

Ali has been with many of his current squad for more eight years. Soon after joining the national setup, he helped UAE win the 2008 AFC U19 championship before taking the same crop of youngsters to the Fifa U20 World Cup in Egypt where the likes of Mabkhout and Khalil, and Omar's older brother Amer, were part of a team who made the quarter-finals.

Against the Aussies on Tuesday, Omar was quick to show his class, using the outside of his exquisite left foot to unleash Mabkhout, who was denied by a scrambling Trent Sainsbury in the 11th minute.

Then, Smith had to play saviour when Omar's effortless dink over the top, from his own half, had Ismail Al Hammadi charging into the box seven minutes before the break.

In the second half, Omar's influence was no less telling, as elder brother Amer joined him on the pitch as a second-half substitute in the 62nd minute.

Deep into stoppage time, after a series of corners, Omar had one last chance to be a hero on a brutally hot night, as he stood over the ball in a dangerous position after Australian substitute Massimo Luongo had given away a free kick.

But his set piece crashed into the wall, the Malaysian referee blew his whistle, and the Al Ain maestro slumped to the pitch in frustration.

Even so, the UAE should gain confidence from going toe-to-toe with the in-form Socceroos, and giving them a closer match than the semifinals of the 2015 Asian Cup where the home side scored twice within the first 15 minutes in Newcastle to effectively kill off the game.

At the very least, the Emiratis should aim for third place in Group B, behind Australia and Japan, which would earn them a play-off to stay alive in the qualifying process.

That means that their next two games will be crucial. They should account for Thailand in Abu Dhabi on Oct 6, but their crunch match will come five days later when they travel to Jeddah to take on Saudi Arabia.

With two wins in their first two games, the Saudis have made a fast start in Group B. But, UAE will be hoping that Bert van Marwijk's side lose to Australia on their next match day before the battle between the two gulf rivals on Oct 11.

Coach Ali, the former midfielder who suffered a heartbreaking knee injury to miss out on UAE's 1990 World Cup squad, must keep the faith and put the close defeat to the Aussies behind him.

Jason Dasey is Singapore-based senior editor of global football website ESPN FC and a former CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @ESPNFC

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