The UAE experienced the sting of tragic failure in their 1-4 opening-day drubbing at the hands of Slovakia before 46,000 fans, but followed up the imbroglio with a hard-fought 2-1 win over plucky, ten-man Panama to keep the dream alive. Now, in a desperate bid to secure a spot in the Round of Sixteen, Jean-Francois Jodar’s young charges will face their stiffest test yet – the Honest Men of Burkina Faso. Without conceding a goal in 180 minutes of finals football, the Africans sit atop Group A with a maximum six points.
Just before the United Arab Emirates’ 32nd National Day got underway – in celebration of the Gulf State’s founding in 1971 – a full-house packed the brand new Mohammad Bin Zayed stadium in Abu Dhabi to see if their boys could rebound from the horrors of their inaugural match, where despite the best efforts of dazzling playmaker Ismail Matar, they hardly looked a side to be reckoned with.
But after seeing Shehab Ahmed’s first-half, twice-taken penalty equalised by Panama’s sharp-shooting Armando Gun, the young hosts kept their nerve and cracked the undermanned Panamanians with only ten minutes to go through a fabulous Saleh Hamad diving header.
Still in with a slim shout
The late, dramatic goal was accompanied by explosive jubilation in the stands that rivaled the holiday fireworks celebration later in the evening. “This win is a soothing tonic for us,” said a relieved Jodar after the match. “We dedicate this win to the beginning of the National Day and the most important thing is that we have given ourselves a chance to reach the next round.”
“We will need at least another point against Burkina Faso to keep our dream of a spot in the Round of Sixteen alive. We know that nothing comes easy in a World Championship, but we will come out of the tunnel with a lot of ambition.”
It will take more than just ambition to unhinge Mart Nooij’s supremely confident Burkinabe. The West African side, with a perfect defensive record and maximum six points from consecutive 1-0 victories over Panama and Slovakia, look one of the stingiest sides in the competition.
Following their win over Slovakia three nights ago, the straight-talking Dutch boss made his intentions crystal clear ahead of his side’s third and final Group A clash. Save for a miraculous reversal in fortune and a cataclysmic turn of events, the Africans can be sure of a spot in the Round of Sixteen - but they will not be sitting on their laurels when they take on the hosts.
First we will take the field looking to beat the hosts in our third match,” Nooij responded rigidly when asked if he was looking ahead to the knockout rounds. “We are not looking past anyone. Once the match with the UAE is over, we will begin to think about the next step. Then and only then.”
Star Matar urges control
“Our strength comes from our close control and our short passes,” Brilliant Matar told FIFA.com after losing the opener to Slovakia and citing nerves as a contributing factor. “We have to keep the ball on the ground as often as possible and move it around quickly. We will not beat a team like…Burkina Faso if we try to match up with them in the air or dominate them physically. So we must use our technique and play to our strengths.”
Up against one of the strongest and most physically dominant sides in the competition, the diminutive hosts will be keen to heed their captain’s words in a desperate bid to reach the promised land of the second stage.
“There are no easy games and no hard games in football, especially at this level,” added Jodar. “But we will go into this game with the hope of winning, or at least grabbing a draw.”
It will take more than hope and ambition for the UAE to overcome the strong, talented and a statistically perfect Burkinabe on 4 December 2003. But if Matar and his mates have anything to say about it, the Africans can count on a fight to the finish.
“It won’t be easy,” said Matar sternly. “But we are ready to fight for it.”