DUBAI // You can sense the relief on some of the faces of the senior players from the national side now that a dismal 2009 is behind them. The past year brought nothing but heartbreak for the side as first they surrendered their Gulf Cup crown before finishing bottom of the group in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, earning just a solitary point from eight games.
With those memories now behind them, the players are looking towards the New Year and a fresh decade to herald in an era of success and glad tidings for UAE football. They can start the ball rolling tonight by booking their place in next year's 2011 Asian Cup if they can manage at least a draw against Malaysia at Al Shabab stadium. "We did not have a great year, so thankfully it's over," said goalkeeper Majed Nasser. "Hopefully the new year will be a lot better and we will be able to revive the image of UAE football by raising the level of our ambitions and achieving them.
"So I am confident 2010 will be the start of a golden new chapter in UAE football, which will restore the confidence of the players and reconcile the team with their fans. Our first objective will be to beat Malaysia and qualify for the Asian Cup, but our real target is to top the group by defeating Uzbekistan in Tashkent [in March]. "That will set tone for the year ahead, with the Gulf Cup, Asian Games and Olympic qualifiers to follow."
With their recent success under Srecko Katanec, who took over as coach in June last year, a good start to 2010 seems a done deal. Beating Malaysia, a team they trounced 5-0 in Kuala Lumpur in the first leg, should not be a major challenge at home and Katanec, who is heading into his first competitive game after losing just once in six friendly matches, was optimistic about a positive result. "We have prepared well and I think we are ready," he said. "We have a good atmosphere in the team and we want to win the game. Let's see who is the better team on the day. I am hoping we will be the one.
"We have only played friendly matches until now, so this will be a little different. We can make five or six substitutions in a friendly game, but in an official match, I can make only three changes. "But from what I have seen up until now in these six friendly matches, I can tell you that we can compete, we can fight and we can run." As Katanec elaborated on the positives, he was reminded about one factor that has been the bane of the national side in recent years: the lack of strikers and paucity of goals. The UAE have not scored in their last three games and have fired blanks in seven of the 12 games since beating Malaysia in January last year.
"Ok, we have this problem, but we did not lose any goals [in the last three games] either," said the 46-year-old Katanec. "So it depends on what side you look at. We have had a lot of the players injured, especially strikers. And if we start to discuss about all the local teams who have foreign strikers, I will be repeating the same thing. "I would like to see local strikers score a lot of goals in the league. Then it is easy for me to put in Faisal Khalil or some other striker. But at the moment I don't see this and I must put together the best team.
"We are playing this game with the players I have and I am really satisfied with their work and the atmosphere in the team. I have no problems about the players I have with me. They have always done their best." firstname.lastname@example.org UAE v Malaysia, 7pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1 & Dubai Sports 1