Mahdi Ali insists UAE are fighting fit for Thailand

Published October 6th, 2016 - 02:56 GMT
UAE national football team
UAE national football team

Mahdi Ali, the UAE coach, insists his side are “in good shape” for Thursday’s first game of their crucial 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying double-header, despite being beset by defensive injuries.

Ali is without three goalkeepers — Khalid Eisa, Ali Khaseif and Ahmad Shambeih and the right-back Mohammad Ahmad — for the third Group B game against Thailand in Abu Dhabi.

On Wednesday, he also revealed that his leading striker, Ahmad Khalil, had been suffering from “physical problems” and that the Al Ahli forward would face a fitness test later in the day.

Despite Khalil’s unspecified ailment, Ali insisted the reigning Asian Player of the Year is “physically ready to play”, although the implication was that he may not be risked ahead of Tuesday’s more demanding test away to Saudi Arabia.

Khalil has been instrumental in the UAE’s quest to reach their second World Cup after Italia 1990 with 13 goals in the qualifying campaign.

He netted a delectable brace in the UAE’s stunning 2-1 win away to Japan in the Group B opener last month, but then limped off in the second half of the Whites’ 1-0 home defeat to Australia five days later.

This left Ali’s men fourth in the group, meaning the showdown with arch-rivals Saudi Arabia could prove decisive in the race to qualify for Russia 2018 in the third and final Asian qualification phase.

The Saudis have garnered maximum points from their opening two matches, with only the top two teams from Group A and Group B earning automatic qualification for the global showpiece.

As such, Ali could have done without losing three goalkeepers ahead of the seismic encounter, although he has a more than adequate back-up shot-stopper in the 69-times-capped Majid Nasser.

And he shrugged off concerns about his side’s physical capabilities by stressing at his pre-match press conference: “These two matches are very different to the games against Japan and Australia because the distance between Saudi and the UAE is not like Japan and here.

“The Japan match was our first official match of the season, but now the players have had so many matches in the local competitions. We are in good shape.”

On paper, the UAE should dispatch the Thais with minimum fuss at the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Their opponents are bottom of Group B after successive defeats to the Saudis and Japan — and lie a whopping 69 places below the UAE at 135 in the Fifa world rankings.

But Kiatsuk Senamuang’s side proved obdurate opposition in both games, especially away to the Saudis, who only beat them thanks to an 84th-minute penalty.

As such, Ali urged what he hopes will be another bumper crowd, following the 40,000-plus attendance at the Australia match, to be patient.

And he revealed he had formulated “a back-up plan” if Thailand manage to shackle successfully the formidable trident of Khalil, his strike partner Ali Mabkhout and the playmaker Omar Abdul Rahman.

But Ali’s opposite number, Senamuang, was similarly unfazed by the imposing task awaiting his minnows.

While acknowledging that the UAE are strong “contenders” to qualify from Group B, he said his team’s strength lies in their ability to “play without pressure.”

He added that the Thais would easily cope with the intense heat and humidity in the UAE capital given that they have acclimatised in training here since September 26.

In Thursday’s other Group B games, third-place Japan — who are only ahead of the UAE on goal difference — host Iraq, while Australia head to Jeddah for a top-of-the-table clash with Saudi Arabia.

CATCH THE MATCH

Kick-off: 8pm, Thursday, October 6

Venue: Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium, home of Al Jazira FC, Abu Dhabi

Ticket information: Besides normal tickets, there are VIP and VIP Premier packages available at ticketmaster.ae.

Live broadcast: beIN Sports 1 HD from 7.30pm


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