SUEZ, EGYPT // Mahdi Ali, the UAE Under 20 coach, has urged his side to remain focused as they face Venezuela tonight in their first knockout game of the World Cup in Egypt. The UAE, who have set their sights on reaching the semi-finals of the tournament, booked a last-16 clash with the South Americans after finishing second in Group F.
This is their third appearance at a youth World Cup and the UAE have progressed beyond the group stages on all three occasions, with their best being the quarter-finals at home in 2003. Ali is confident his side, the champions of Asia, can better that performance here in Egypt, and their hopes are not damaged by the 2-0 loss to Hungary in the last group game. "That is behind us now, we are in the knockout stage of the tournament and the losers will be returning home," he said.
"So every game from now on is like a final. We cannot afford a single lapse. "We have to stay completely focused and calm on the pitch if we are to fulfil our ambitions. "We have no plans of returning home early and our determination of reaching the quarter-final remains high. "The players have been making a great effort in training and it proves their desire to win this game and keep advancing in the tournament.
"We have the confidence and the ability, and we just need a bit of luck to achieve our targets." Luck will indeed be crucial to the UAE's hopes, especially in front of goal. There has been a paucity of goals from the UAE forwards, despite them getting many opportunities. They scored just three in the group matches, two of them from dead-ball situations. The return of the fleet-footed Ahmed Ali, suspended for the Hungary game, should be good news towards that end.
The Al Wahda striker, who struck up a winning combination with Ahmed Khalil at the Asian Under 19 Championship last year, has been the most impressive of UAE's forward-line in this tournament. While Ahmed Ali returns, the UAE will be without the services of right-back Abdulaziz Hussain due to suspension. "It is good to have Ahmed Ali back, he gives us more options in attack. But unfortunately, Abdulaziz will not be available for the game," said coach Ali.
"I have yet to decide on a replacement. We will wait until our final training session before doing that. But I am confident we have enough quality on the bench to make up for the absence." Ali must be concerned about the dip in Saad Surour's performance in the last game. His lapses were the reason for both the goals conceded by the UAE. The goalkeeper Yousif Abdulrahman is, however, confident Surour and the rest of the team will up their game tonight.
"Yes, we made some mistakes in the last game, but it would be harsh to point fingers," he said. "One person is never responsible for a loss or win, it is a collective team effort and we had a bad day. "Thankfully, it did not cost us much. It was a group match and we had already qualified. "That is behind us now and you will see a different team in this game. We are fully focused on Venezuela and winning this match. Losing is not an option.
"We want to win for our fans, and also for the Egyptian and Arab masses who have stood firmly behind us. It will be our gift to them for all their support and encouragement." email@example.com UAE v Venezuela, 6.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports & ART Sport 4