There is good and bad news for the UAE ahead of their final, must-win World Cup qualifier against South Korea in Dubai on Tuesday.
The visitors have already booked a place at their 10th successive World Cup tournament — but that does not mean they have traveled to the Gulf simply to bask in the welcome sunshine.
As captain Son Heung-min and coach Paulo Bento made clear, Asia’s most successful World Cup team want to end their campaign with a victory and top spot in Group A.
With one game remaining, Korea lead the group on 23 points, one ahead of second-placed Iran. The UAE are a distant third with 9 points, closely followed by Iraq on 8 points. While any hope of the hosts claiming one of the two automatic qualification spots is long gone, victory at the Al-Maktoum Stadium would guarantee the UAE a play-off spot against Australia in June. The winner of that clash would then take on South American opposition for a place at the finals in Qatar.
In truth the Whites, who are looking to return to the World Cup stage for the first time since their debut at the finals in 1990, should have already secured that play-off spot. All they had to do last Thursday, in their first game under new coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena, was avoid defeat by Iraq. Instead they lost 1-0.
It means that if Iraq defeat bottom-of-the-table Syria in their match on Tuesday, also in Dubai, the UAE will have to become the first team to defeat Korea during this qualification campaign. Not only that, the 2002 semi-finalists have conceded only two goals in 15 games on the road to Qatar and so arrived in Dubai on Saturday full of confidence.
Son, South Korea’s star forward who plays club football for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League, scored his fourth goal of the third round of qualifying on Thursday during a 2-0 victory over Iran in front of more than 64,000 fans in Seoul. For him, and his team, the most pressing concern is now ensuring they finish what has been a successful, and comfortable, campaign on a high.
“We are here to win and we are all focused on finishing in first place,” Son said. “We know that the UAE are a good team and it will be a difficult game but we are feeling good and are looking forward to the challenge.”
Any doubts about this commitment were dispelled last Thursday. South Korea had already qualified for Qatar before taking to the field against Iran but they nonetheless delivered a committed and professional performance, and in the end the margin of victory could have been higher given the number of chances created by the home team.
“Our objective all along had been to qualify for the World Cup and we have taken care of that business,” Son said.
“But the mood within the team is that we are not satisfied yet. The guys could have been thinking, ‘This round is already over for us.’ But they’re not like that at all. I am really thankful. We’re going to do our best, as if we haven’t qualified for the World Cup yet.
“I think we’ve been playing so well lately because of what we went through earlier. But we are not a complete team yet. Hopefully, we will get to that point in time for the World Cup.”
Son has been the model professional, according to his coach.
“He keeps having good motivation to play on the national team and ambitions to make good things for the national team and make people happy,” Bento said.
“And of course, he has the support of all the other players that make his job as captain easier. And this is the most important: We all work together and we play as a team. And good results that players are achieving make the position of captain much easier.”
One headache for the Koreans is that their main striker, Hwang Ui-jo, has failed to score during the third round of qualification, a drought that has reached nine games. If the Bordeaux star can get on the score sheet in Dubai then it really will be a perfect end to the qualifying campaign for South Korea, who defeated the UAE 1-0 at home in November, a scoreline that did not accurately reflect the hosts’ dominance.
The Emiratis, who struggled to get going in that game and against Iraq last week, will be without top scorer Ali Mabkhout — nicknamed “the UAE’s Son” by the Korean media — as the striker is suspended. Influential midfielder Abdullah Ramadan returns, however, after serving a time out of his own.
If the hosts do not improve markedly from their performance in the Iraq defeat then their only hope will lie with Iraq slipping up against Syria. Iraq meanwhile will be hoping for a Korean win or even a draw. The Lions of Mesopotamia have also struggled to get going during this stage of qualification, eventually picking up their first victory last Thursday thanks to a goal from Hussein Ali that capped a spirited performance.
Heading into the final game, then, the arithmetic is quite simple: If the UAE are to be sure of a play-off spot against Australia, and keeping their World Cup dream alive, they will need to beat South Korea. If this is to happen it will require the best performance of their qualification campaign, by some distance, especially given that Korea have come to Dubai to win.