x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE Olympic side's 'massive opportunity' awaits

Coach Mahdi Ali vows his side will go for victory against Uzbekistan, even though a draw would be enough to see them qualify for London 2012 Olympics.

Mahdi Ali is optimistic the UAE Olympic side will get what they need in Uzbekistan to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.
Mahdi Ali is optimistic the UAE Olympic side will get what they need in Uzbekistan to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.

TASHKENT //The UAE is 90 minutes away from its greatest footballing achievement since qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, and Mahdi Ali says his Under 23 team are ready to stand and deliver a London 2012 Olympics berth for their countrymen.

"Our nation is waiting for this moment," the coach said yesterday. "This is a massive opportunity for us. It is a dream, and we will fight for it until the end of the game, and we hope God's will is that we win."

The winner of the UAE's match with Uzbekistan in cold and possibly rainy Tashkent qualifies for the London 2012 Olympic football tournament. The UAE have never played in the Olympics; neither have Uzbekistan.

A draw would be enough for the UAE to win Group B and earn automatic qualification. Even a defeat leads to more games, a three-way tournament for second-place Asia teams in Vietnam beginning on March 25, and the winner there would meet Senegal for another London berth.

Ali, however, wants the UAE's qualifying bid to end here and now.

"We will play to win," he said. "In football you think in this moment. You don't think in the future that maybe this will happen or that will. We will concentrate on this game and no other until the final whistle of the referee."

Hamdan Al Kamali, the Lyon centre-back, will return to the line-up tonight and wear the captain's armband, and he said no one expects an easy match.

"It will be a very difficult game for both teams," he said.

This UAE age-group team have a history of success against Uzbekistan, with Ahmed Khalil, the Al Ahli striker, often providing the decisive goals.

However, this game will be played in a city still locked in the grip of the central Asia winter, and in a stadium where the Uzbeks recorded dual 2-0 victories over both Iraq and Australia in their group matches. The UAE and the Uzbeks battled to a 0-0 draw in Al Ain in November.

"I see many good players" in the Uzbek side, Ali said. "Very good spirit and well organised. We know them, and they know us."

The Uzbeks can count on a home-field advantage. Even if hundreds of Emiratis arrive for the game, as is expected, the clear majority of fans in the 10,000-capacity JAR Stadium will be Uzbek supporters. Plus, the Uzbek footballers have deep experience playing in less-than-ideal conditions.

"All people in Uzbekistan are happy to be here, and they know how big it would be to go to the Olympics," said Vadim Abramov, their coach, who expects every Uzbek will be a fan tonight.

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"I think we will have 25 million people supporting us in this match."

He played down the significance of the weather. "If bad weather were the main reason for winning, I would order up bad weather every time we play," he said. "It will come down to the preparation of the players."

The UAE are likely to play without Amer Abdulrahman, the playmaking midfielder, who suffered a foot injury last month and has been slow in his recovery, although he has travelled to Tashkent.

Aside from Al Kamali joining the first XI, presumably in the place of Saad Suroor, the UAE line-up is likely to be the same that defeated Australia 1-0 three weeks ago.

Included in that number will be the winger Omar Abdulrahman, who scored the winning goal against the Olyroos.

Also likely to be in the starting XI: the forward Ahmed Ali; the midfielders Habib Fardan, Khamis Ismail and Rashid Essa; the defenders Mohammed Abdulaziz, Mohammed Ahmed, Abdulaziz Hussain and Al Kamali; and the goalkeeper Khalid Essa.

The UAE have not conceded a goal in four of their previous five matches, and if that defensive excellence keeps up tonight, they will go to London.

"We have made a good preparation for 10 days, and we are ready to play to win the game," Ali said.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae