UAE v Thailand: Mahdi Ali knows not to overlook this opponent before pivotal Saudi Arabia tie
Mahdi Ali will have been eager to emphasise a familiar message this week.
His UAE side take on Thailand on Thursday, Match 3 of the 10-game quest to make the 2018 World Cup, the third step on what he hopes constitutes the road to Russia.
Thailand first in Abu Dhabi, then Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah, next Tuesday.
• See also: Scouting report on Thailand
The latter encounter has always occupied the mind, ever since the Gulf rivals were drawn together once more, pitted against one another in Group B just like they were in Group A in the last qualification stage, considered by many a direct duel for third spot in a pool containing Australia and Japan.
The two jousts with Saudi — the return fixture in Abu Dhabi is next August, their penultimate Group B assignment — were always deemed decisive. So the UAE could be forgiven for reconvening this week and looking past Thailand and towards Tuesday’s tussle at the King Abdullah Sports City.
Yet Mahdi Ali will not have allowed it. The UAE manager regularly reminds his players that no easy games exist in international football, that no result is guaranteed.
It may sound cliched, and it is worth noting in the past year the UAE defeated Malaysia and Timor Leste by an aggregate 18-0, but they need not look too far to find evidence that shocks can occur. Last month, the UAE registered a surprise victory against Japan in Saitama.
They can look, too, at Thailand’s two matches thus far in Group B. Although ranked 135th in the world by Fifa and therefore represent the lowest positioned team in the section, they narrowly lost their opener last month to Saudi, in Riyadh.
A Nawaf Al Abid penalty six minutes from time sealed a 1-0 win for the hosts and spared their blushes. Five days later, Thailand lost 2-0 at home to Japan, a wounded and wound-up Japan following their UAE disappointment.
So the Emirates should exercise caution at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium tonight. They should treat Thailand with as much respect as they would Saudi, or as they did Japan and Australia last month. Mahdi Ali will no doubt ensure that.
Step 3 on the road to Russia might seem more straightforward than Step 4, or those that came before. But in the absence of a victory in the capital, the Saudi match grows even more difficult, the fine work four weeks ago in Japan undone.
Three points from Step 3 is a must. Full focus is again required.
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Updated: October 5, 2016 04:00 AM