With all four of Asia’s automatic berths claimed, the UAE face the already-qualified South Korea on Tuesday, looking to keep alive their prospects of a first World Cup appearance in more than three decades.
With a slender one-point lead over fourth-placed Iraq in Group A, Rodolfo Arruabarrena’ UAE will aim for victory when they face the Asian giants South Korea at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai (5:45 pm UAE Time) on Tuesday.
A draw will not be enough for the UAE if Iraq beat Syria in their final Group A game on Tuesday.
The third-placed team in Group A will face a playoff against Australia, who are guaranteed to finish third in Group B behind qualifiers Japan and Saudi Arabia.
The winners of the Asian playoff will take on the fifth-best nation from South America for a place in the World Cup.
The playoff between the two Asian qualifiers will be held in Qatar on June 7, with the winner facing either Peru, Colombia or Chile in a one-off clash a week later for a spot in the World Cup.
The UAE, who made their only World Cup appearance in Italy in 1990, currently occupy third place in Group A and take on a South Korean side that have already confirmed their progress to November’s finals alongside Iran.
Iraq’s win over the UAE on Thursday was their first in a turbulent campaign, which saw Abdulghani Shahad follow in the footsteps of Dick Advocaat and Zeljko Petrovic to become the third coach to lead the team in nine games.
That victory moved Iraq to within a point of the UAE and has ignited hope that the country can qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
“Today’s performance was a show of character,” said Iraq captain Saad Abdulameer after the win over the UAE in Riyadh.
“The first win came late, but better late than never and we still have a chance going into the next game.
“We needed this one so badly, but we still have more to give. With coach Shahad a lot of things will change, and you will see over the next few days that we will work hard and hopefully win the next game.”
Based on the way this Asian Qualifiers cycle has unfolded, getting a positive result against South Korea will be a tough challenge for the UAE in Dubai.
Paulo Bento’s team are yet to taste defeat in 15 matches on the Road to Qatar, with their latest fixture producing a convincing 2-0 win over the group’s other runaway qualifier, Iran.
Also in Korea’s favour is the comprehensive nature of their win over the UAE last November, when Hwang Hee-chan’s penalty kick decided a match which was dominated by the East Asian side, who racked up 20 shots at goal to three.
The Koreans have shown themselves to be the more accomplished side in these qualifiers, but the UAE fans will be hopeful that the do-or-die nature of Tuesday’s clash brings out the best in their charges.
But the UAE have been hampered by the suspension of Ali Mabkhout, who has scored more goals than any player in the world on the Road to Qatar, with Caio Canedo among the candidates to deputise as the team’s chief goal threat.
It has been more than 15 years since the UAE last tasted success against Korea, and they have never beaten them in a World Cup Qualifier.
Arrubarrena’s side must shrug off history, as well as more recent events, if they are to keep their World Cup destiny in their own hands.