Srecko Katanec has his final chance to prepare for next month's key Asian Cup qualifier with Malaysia as the UAE travel to Kuwait for a friendly on a night when the Spanish giants Barcelona play the Mexican club Atlante in the semi-finals of the Club World Cup at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi. Barcelona are arguably the most popular club in the Emirates and the nation's attention will be on the European champions' game rather than their national team's friendly.
The UAE need only a home draw against Malaysia on January 6 to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup finals in Doha from the three-team Group Three along with Uzbekistan, who booked their berth after 3-1 result over the Malaysians last month. And it seems a mere formality to a UAE side that thrashed Malaysia 5-0 away under the Frenchman Dominique Bathenay last January. Katanec, however, was not prepared to take anything for granted, saying: "There are no guarantees until we have actually qualified from the group. It may seem an easy task but we still have to play for that point. The first task is to qualify and then we need to keep building for the future."
Although Katanec took charge in June, he did not have a game until early October, a 1-1 draw against Palestine followed by a 3-1 win over Jordan. Last month, they beat the Premier League club Manchester City 1-0 in a friendly before a four-team friendly tournament, where they overcame the Czech Republic in a penalty shoot-out before losing to the Asian Champions Iraq 1-0. Ahead of his sixth match in charge, the first away from home, Katanec was upbeat of his team's progress.
"We have tried out several combinations and have made some progress," said the Slovenian. "It is a combination of both, experience and youth. Obviously we can't build a team overnight. But I am happy with the progress and the Kuwait game serves us as a good test." Ismail Matar returns from injury along with his Al Wahda teammate, the right winger Fahad Masoud. Matar suffered a knee injury in the first half hour against the Palestinians in Katanec's first game in charge, and is back in the national team after coming on as a substitute for his club in the last two league games.
Matar and another of his club teammates, Mohammed al Shehhi, are expected to start up front with the young Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil having to stay in the UAE for club duties in the Club World Cup. Khalil's UAE Under 20 teammate Theyab Awana and the experienced Saeed al Kas are the other forwards in Katanec's squad. firstname.lastname@example.org Kuwait v UAE, KO 6.30pm