Ismail Matar: UAE have retaken control of 2018 World Cup destiny with Iraq victory
ABU DHABI // Ismail Matar says Tuesday’s victory against Iraq means the UAE can now capitalise on having their World Cup ambitions in their own hands.
The Al Wahda striker, back in the international fold for the first time since March, came off the bench to score the second in the 2-0 win at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, a result that moved the UAE level on points with third-placed Australia but only one point off Group B leaders Saudi Arabia.
Mahdi Ali’s side still sit fourth at the halfway stage, but have a more realistic chance of securing a top-two spot that automatically seals a berth at Russia 2018. Should they finish third, they would then go into a series of play-offs to appear at only a second World Cup in the country’s history.
More from 2018 World Cup qualifying:
• Mahdi Ali: Coy on future as UAE manager
• Omar Abdulrahman: Big week ahead for UAE and Al Ain
The UAE resume their campaign with the daunting double-header against Japan and Australia next March. However, they will be buoyed by the fact the latter, the current Asian champions, dropped what could prove to be valuable points on Tuesday with a 2-2 draw in Thailand.
“The most important thing for us now after this win is that it makes it easier for us, because our progress depends on us,” Matar said. “And of course, the other result between Thailand and Australia helped us a lot.
“If we want to qualify we have to win our games, this is the really important thing for us. We’re now not waiting for other teams to help us to reach our target. If you want to go forward, you have to deal with each game game-by-game. But it’s easier for us: if we want to qualify we have to help only ourselves.”
Matar’s return to the UAE set-up has been an immediate success. The forward, one of the most celebrated players in the country’s history, had not been part of the squad for the past eight months, but scored in last week’s friendly against Bahrain and then again on Tuesday.
Scorer of the winning goal in the 2007 Gulf Cup final, Matar has been lauded for the experience he brings to the team, while his contribution as a late substitute against Iraq helped ease the strain on his teammates and manager Mahdi Ali.
Asked about having to handle that pressure for the game in Abu Dhabi, Matar said: “It’s normal for me and for the team. Football is always about pressure and how you deal with it. So if you focus more on the game, look at the small details, then the most important thing is you know what you want from the game. And we wanted only the three points. Thankfully, we got that — that was all that mattered.”
Matar, 33, said recent performances have given him confidence going forward, as he seeks to retain his place in the squad as the UAE bid for a World Cup place. Mahdi Ali praised the veteran frontman after the Iraq match, saying: “Ismail Matar is one of UAE football’s symbols. He answered all his critics on the field.
“I told him he had to be ready. He was ready, played good and scored the decisive goal. He gave the fans more motivation and this motivates the players. Ismail is a very good player — I have huge respect for him.”
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Updated: November 16, 2016 04:00 AM