Australia v UAE: Quaint setting of training a different prospect to what lies ahead for Emirates in World Cup qualifier
SYDNEY // The UAE have been handed a significant boost ahead of their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Australia on Tuesday, after Ahmed Khalil made it through a second training session unscathed.
The Al Ahli forward, who has scored 15 goals in qualifying so far, missed the 2-0 defeat against Japan in Al Ain last week due to a calf injury.
Mahdi Ali, the UAE manager, said back then he had not wanted to risk Khalil, but had hoped he would have fully recovered in time for the next match in Sydney.
The fact he has taken a full part in practice so far suggests it is likely the joint-leading scorer from in the Asian qualifiers will be restored to the starting line up, probably in place of Ismail Matar, for the meeting with Australia.
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■ Reaction: Mahdi Ali focused on Australia, not his future
Since arriving in Sydney after the vexing defeat to Japan in Al Ain on Thursday night, the UAE have had two training sessions to work out their frustrations.
Both have been at the North Sydney Oval, a venue which could not differ any more starkly from the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, where the players last kicked a ball in anger.
Al Ain’s new 25,000-seater stadium is barely two years old, and built specifically with football in mind. The practice facility in Sydney, by contrast, dates from 1867, and retains charming red brick stands with green corrugated roofs.
And it is a cricket ground. An 11-a-side football pitch has been cut and marked specifically for the purposes of these pre-qualifier practice sessions. The stands are named after great cricketers from Australia’s past, such as Bill O’Reilly and Doug Walters.
The ground, which is a short drive across Sydney Harbour Bridge from the team hotel in the city centre, has been used sparingly for football in the past, but proved unpopular with players due to the hard ground in the central wicket area.
For most of the UAE’s 7pm session on Sunday, they underwent short sided drills on the periphery of the field, but Mahdi Ali did run the risk of playing a 10-a-side match through the middle of the field.
Khalil and Ismail Ahmed, the Al Ain centre-back who is also recovering from an injury which kept him out of the Japan game, showed no apparent ill effect from playing on the firm surface.
Training took place with the gates closed to the public, as is the convention. That said, it is doubtful whether many people would have looked in even if it were an open session.
Outside the ground, people idled away their Sunday by playing frisbee or dog walking, while a number of pick-up matches were taking place on the neighbouring basketball and netball courts.
The scene in North Sydney betrayed few signs of the tension Tuesday’s match is likely to bring with it. The scenario is similar for both sides: lose, and they might as well say goodbye to their chances of playing in Russia next year.
“It is a very important match and we have to play to win,” Mahdi Ali said after the Japan. “We don’t have any alternatives. If it is a draw, that is not that bad, but it would make our mission difficult. Our ambition is to do our best to win the match.”
The away side have reasons for cheer that go beyond just the returning personnel. While the practice facilities might have been alien, they have happy memories of playing at Allianz Stadium, the venue for Tuesday’s match.
It was there that UAE enjoyed one of their finest moments, beating Japan on penalties on their way to third place in the 2015 Asian Cup.
Optimism might be offset, though, by Australia’s extraordinary home record in World Cup qualifiers. The Socceroos have not lost in 17 matches, spread over nine years, in qualifying matches played on home soil.
The game they did lose, in a dead rubber against China, was their only defeat in 56 matches stretching back to 1981.
It was for that reason that Tim Cahill, Australia’s leading goalscorer, suggested the home side are confident.
“It’s a very intimidating place for them to come,” Cahill said. “It will be difficult for them and that’s life.”
Cahill, who scored the winner when the sides met in the reverse fixtures six months ago on a sweltering night in Abu Dhabi, is again likely to start from the bench against the UAE.
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Updated: March 26, 2017 04:00 AM