x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UAE football team's road to London starts here

The UAE may be heavy favourites against lowly Sr Lanka, but the Under 23 team coach Mahdi Ali was guarded against complacency.

Mahdi Ali will look to make full use of his squad.
Mahdi Ali will look to make full use of his squad.

For a UAE team with ambitions of earning a berth in the 2012 London Olympics, the first step comes tonight against lowly Sri Lanka.

"We have never played in the Olympic Games and our main goal is to make it this time to the London Games," Mahdi Ali, the Emirati coach of the country's Under 23 team, said ahead of tonight's game at the Baniyas Stadium, the first of the two-legged preliminary round qualifier.

The UAE may be heavy favourites, but Ali was guarded against complacency.

"It is not unusual that the general feeling is that Sri Lanka are weak opponents, but that's when things can start going horribly wrong for us," he said.

"It is our first match after the Asian Games final in November. We have had very little time to regroup as some of the players returned to the senior national team for the Asian Cup in January and others were reunited with their clubs.

"We spent only four days [together] ahead of this match. This is not the first time we have been in this situation, but we were able to regroup quickly. This is also the first game in the year and it provides a very good test for the players."

Ali has had a lot of success in the age-group competitions in his seven years with a squad that is now the Olympic team.

They won the Under 16 Gulf Cup in 2006, the U19 Asian Cup in 2009, U23 Gulf Cup in August and a maiden silver medal at the Asian Games in China in November. They also reached the last eight in the U20 World Cup in 2009.

"That's one of the good things," he said. "I know most of these players from the age of 14. We have had a lot of success with this squad and the expectations are high."

Ali will be without some of his key players: Theyab Awana, Amer Adbulrahman, Mohammed Fawzi and Yousuf Abdulrahman, the goalkeeper, who was injured in a car crash last year.

"We have a squad of more than 35 players and this is a good opportunity to give some of them a game, and those returning from injuries, such as Rashid Eisa, Ali Mabhkout and Habib Fardan," Ali added. "We know very little about our opponents but that doesn't worry us because we will play to our strength."

Sri Lanka had no such ambitions and were looking at the tie as part of their preparation for next month's Asian Challenge Cup.

"Sri Lanka is a developing football nation and we must be realistic of our chances against the UAE," Jang Jung, their South Korean coach, said.

"We are playing against a far superior side but we will not go down without a fight. We are working on a young squad for next month's AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal and this experience will matter most for us."

The 11 winners from the preliminary round will join the 13 higher-ranked teams in two-legged knockout ties on June 19 and 23.

The 12 winners of that round will then be drawn into three groups of four with the winners of each advancing to the London Games while each of the runners up will go into a play-off round. They will then play the Confederation of African Football's fourth-placed team.



7.30pm, Sharjah Sport