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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

UAE have to believe in World Cup qualification against all odds on the pitch against Iraq

Bauza's men need other results to go their way for chance to make Russia 2018, but they must still take on Iraq as if it is within their grasp.

UAE's Ahmed Khalil, centre, has twice said that "nothing is impossible". His team need to believe that. Chris Whiteoak / The National
UAE's Ahmed Khalil, centre, has twice said that "nothing is impossible". His team need to believe that. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Ahmed Khalil said it, in the bowels of the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium last Tuesday, after a match-winning performance against Saudi Arabia had kept alive the UAE’s remote hopes of making the World Cup.

“We are in a difficult situation,” the striker said, despite the 2-1 victory pushing an improbable bid into its final week. Into this week against Iraq in Jordan.

Difficult was right. Almost insurmountable may have been more apt. To stand any chance of reaching Russia next summer, the UAE must glean three points at the Amman International Stadium on Tuesday and then hope for Australia to lose at home to Thailand, or for Saudi Arabia to do likewise in Jeddah against Japan. Most likely, for one to lose heavily.

To clinch that last automatic spot, to jump from fourth in the standings to second, the UAE would in all probability need both to happen.

Even before Khalil and the Saudis and the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium last Tuesday, the national team’s bid for a second World Cup appearance was best described as fanciful. Even with a win against Iraq, it looks futile.

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Khamis Esmail echoed Khalil’s thoughts that night last week. The UAE midfielder was excellent in stemming the Saudis’ flow, in helping the national team register a rare win against typically dominant neighbours. It was the UAE’s first success against the Saudis in more than a decade. Eventually, it could prove little more than a means of motivation. A result to look beyond Iraq and beyond World Cup qualification.

“Maybe this win will not help us to qualify, but for the bad moment we had before it’s a good thing for us,” said Esmail, whose yellow card against Saudi Arabia rules him out of Iraq. “Every win gives us support for any competition we have. We feel good after any win we have.”

The UAE should channel that on Tuesday. No matter the situation they find themselves in, no matter the complexion of the group and all the permutations required to secure a World Cup berth, they need to ensure they carry out their part of the job. However unrealistic a route, the UAE must first defeat Iraq and see what transpires. They have to do their bit.

For what it is worth, Australia take on Thailand in Melbourne hours beforehand. By the time kick-off in Jordan rolls around, the UAE will know if the Asian champions can be reeled back in. If not, if Australia do as expected and beat the group’s bottom team, the UAE should carry on regardless. A glimmer of hope would survive.

Saudi Arabia meet Japan after the UAE’s match with Iraq has finished. Should the UAE win, and win handsomely, it would ramp up the pressure on their Gulf rivals. Last week, as the expectation of clinching a first World Cup appearance since 2006 began to weigh heavily, the Saudis came unstuck in Al Ain. The UAE can again test that resolve.

It remains a long shot, but then it has been that for quite some time. Ever since, in fact, that twin defeat in the March double-header with Japan and Australia. It only increased in June, once the UAE laboured and lumbered to a last-gasp draw in Thailand. The Saudi clash seven days ago was supposed to simply confirm another missed opportunity, that another stab at a World Cup had missed its mark.

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But then Khalil struck the winner and the quest sustained. As a result, it all comes down to Iraq, and to Thailand, and to Japan. So Edgardo Bauza’s third competitive game in charge of the UAE could provide the greatest of escapes. It could bring to a close an ultimately unsuccessful campaign.

Yet at least his side enter the Amman International Stadium with something to cling to. Thus, they have to put aside the bigger picture, forget about the injuries to Omar Abdulrahman and Ismail Ahmed, leave behind the suspensions to Esmail, Ali Mabkhout and Mahmoud Khamis. Victory is all that matters. It could prove redundant. It most probably will.

What the UAE must do, though, is give themselves that chance. After defeating the Saudis, when it felt they had merely prolonged the inevitable, Khalil declared “nothing is impossible". It seemed more in hope than in expectation. Even still, the UAE have to believe that for one final crack at World Cup 2018.