The game between Australia and the United Arab Emirates for a place in the quarter-finals is far and away the surprise tie of the round. And an encounter pitting the hosts against the side that subdued Brazil looks a tough one to call. Both teams have acquired a taste for glory and will be loathe to depart the desert feast unsated. FIFA.com caught up with a few of the players sure to be in the thick of things when the host nation meet the Young Socceroos in Sharjah.
The feat achieved by the Australians in their last Group C match should not be underestimated. In defeating thrice world champions Brazil, the Young Socceroos warned opponents that they underestimate them at their peril, but Alex Wilkinson, one half of a rock-solid central defensive pairing with Nottingham Forest's David Tarka, believes that this historical performance has not elevated Australia’s status. “Beating Brazil has given us a massive shot in the arm, but we are well aware that the game against the Emirates is a different affair altogether. We have to forget our display against the Seleçao and concentrate on this match. We’re definitely still outsiders, which is good, as it keeps the pressure off us,” asserts the young defender.
Caution is clearly Australia’s mantra at the moment. They are not getting carried away, assuming that a good match against Brazil means the world title is in the bag. Far from it. “This will be a very difficult match. It always is against the hosts, not least because they’re sure to have the backing of the crowd,” opines Wilkinson.
The Australians know exactly what to expect, as the two teams met on a friendly basis just a few days before the start of the event: “We played against the Emirates twice, getting a draw and a win, so we know all about their quality. Regardless of the things you hear said about them, they are a difficult side to break down and are very fast. We need to concentrate on playing our game, which is all about going forward. One thing’s for sure though, there are no easy matches these days.”
isplaying a typically Australian laid-back approach, Wilkinson effortlessly accentuates the positive, even when touching on the subject of the crowd, sure to constitute a considerable advantage for the Emirates. “It’s something new to us, as most of us play in the Australian Championship, where crowds are not that big. So even if they’re all against us, it will give us a lift,” he enthuses.
So do they have a special plan in order to topple a supremely motivated Emirates side? Despite his desire not to dwell on the win over the Brazilians and focus on this new adversary, Wilkinson cannot help drawing on their triumph by way of illustration… “We will form a solid unit, from the deepest lying forward to the sweeper, with everyone contributing to defensive duties. And we’re pretty tasty in attack too, as the six goals we’ve scored so far show. Overall though, no particular part of our team stands out. We have strength in all areas. I believe that if we can play as we did against Brazil, we should go through.”
Optimism order of the day for the Emirates
But the United Arab Emirates clearly beg to differ. Ismael Matar and Ali Al Wehaibi, two of the principal attacking threats for the UAE, are bullish on the subject of their prospects. Right winger Al Wehaibi is convinced that success will be theirs: "Australia are a good side and extremely well organised. We know them well as we played two friendlies just before the tournament, and we really feel we can win this one.”
Matar, with back-to-front baseball cap glued to his head and a permanent smile playing across his lips, believes the battle will be decided in the heads of the players. “At this stage of the competition, there are no more minnows. We must respect the Australians for having got this far. I feel that the team which is stronger mentally will win it.”
The star playmaker also discloses some tactics tailored to seeing off the Aussies: “It’s quite simple really: we have to be careful and well-organised in defence and midfield, and put away all chances we create.” For Al Wehaibi, meanwhile, they key is team spirit. “We will need to be more together than ever before and play with maximum confidence. At this stage, there is no more room for error.”
On the subject of the inevitable pressure associated with this type of game, especially for the hosts, the two young men echo the positive approach evinced by their opponents. “Playing in a packed stadium is always a good thing. It’s true that it can increase the tension, but we’ve grown accustomed to that over the last three matches. It could cause Australia problems though, because so far they’ve been free from any pressure,” is Matar’s assessment. His team-mate is banking on the backing of the fans to tip the scales in their favour. “The role of the spectators is very important. It’s an added incentive for us, as it is our big chance to show the whole country how well we can play.”
Their motivation for victory is also enhanced by the fact that despite reaching the last sixteen stage in 1995, no Emirates side has ever progressed beyond this point. “We want to get past this round and become the first team from the United Arab Emirates to contest a quarter-final. Then a little bit of history will be ours,” underlines Matar.
Despite their burgeoning appetite for success, the Emirates’ players are nonetheless thrilled to have come this far. “It is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we’ve played against opponents from all corners of the earth with highly contrasting styles of play. There’s no better way to move forward, to build our country’s footballing future. And who knows, we may even get the chance to turn professional,” Al Wehaibi permits himself to dream. A win against Australia would bring that dream one step closer to reality