Van Marwijk dreams big as UAE face Iran in World Cup qualifier
The Whites currently occupy third place in Group A
Having started their campaign in the third round of the Fifa World Cup qualifiers with back-to-back draws against Lebanon and Syria, UAE face a huge challenge against leaders Iran at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai on Thursday.
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The Whites are looking to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1990. For that to happen, the hosts need to win their next two games against Iran (Thursday) and Iraq (Tuesday).
Bert van Marwijk’s team will be enjoying the home advantage in both these games.
But having lost the chance to beat Lebanon in Dubai last month, the Dutch manager knows the challenge will be huge against Iran on Thursday.
“I love matches like these, in which we face strong opponents. The Iranian team is strong and has great players who play in top leagues, and this makes the competition for us even stronger,” he admitted during the pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
Van Marwijk, who helped Saudi Arabia qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, said UAE played well in the first two matches despite failing to achieve the desired results.
While Lebanon held UAE to a goalless draw in the first game, Syria denied Van Marwijk’s men victory in the next game when Mahmoud Al Baher’s second-half goal cancelled out Ali Mabkhout’s first-half strike.
But it was the overall performance of the team that pleased the head coach.
“I do not prefer to change the way of playing from one game to another. It is not easy to build a character for the national team. I think we succeeded in that, and perhaps everyone will notice this,” he said on Wednesday.
UAE once again will be depending on the finishing skills of the prolific Ali Mabkhout who equalled Brazilian legend Pele’s record during the match against Syria with his 77th goal in international football.
With 12 goals in the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, the 31-year-old Al Jazira striker is showing no signs of slowing down.
Ali Mabkhout will be backed by UAE’s two Brazil-born attacking talents — Fabio Lima and Caio Canedo.
But getting the better of an Iranian team boasting some top-class players is still going to be a big challenge on Thursday.
Mehdi Taremi, Iran’s target man, recently scored FC Porto’s only goal in a 5-1 defeat to Liverpool in a Champions League Group B game.
Zenit Saint Petersburg star Sardar Azmoun, Taremi’s strike partner, is one of the most prolific strikers in the Russian Premier League.
Iran head coach Dragan Skocic also has the luxury of having two more Europe-based strikers — Karim Ansarifard (AEK Athens) and Kaveh Rezaei (OH Leuven, Belgium).
Iran also enjoy a superior head-to-head record against UAE, losing only one out of 16 clashes in the past.
But UAE winger Bandar Al Ahbabi says the team is prepared for the challenge.
“We are facing a strong and experienced opponent, but we are confident in our abilities and we will fight hard to achieve what is required,” Al Ahbabi said on Wednesday.
The gruelling third round features twelve teams that have been divided into two groups of six.
The top two teams in each group will qualify for the World Cup. The two third-placed teams in both groups will be locked in a playoff battle with the winner advancing to an inter-confederation playoff for a place in next year’s World Cup.
UAE, currently occupying the third place in Group A, know a victory against leaders Iran will be a great morale booster as they aim to reach the World Cup after a gap of 31 years.
Van Marwijk remains confident of his team’s chances.
“I have succeeded in qualifying for the World Cup twice before with national teams,” Van Marwijk said.
“And I hope to do it for the third time!”
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