It was a "consolation" goal from Ismaeil Matar that sent the United Arab Emirates through to the fourth round of Asian qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

A draw at home in Al Ain on the final matchday would have been enough for "The Whites" to qualify comfortably from their third round group along with Iran. Their Syrian guests, however, had other ideas, and were leading 2-0 after 51 minutes. As the visitors surged forward in search of a third goal that would have sent them through to the final qualifying group on goal difference, the Emirates' most notable footballer of the last decade, Ismail Matar, came to the rescue, scoring a crucial penalty in the 83rd minute.

"Although we lost, this was the most valuable goal we've scored in the qualifiers so far!" said the scorer, who emerged on the international scene in 2003 when he was awarded the Golden Ball at that year's FIFA U-20 World Cup, which was hosted by the UAE.

Despite home and away victories over Gulf rivals Kuwait and a goalless draw with the mighty Iranians in Tehran in the previous round, the last-minute qualification raised doubts over the team's ability to compete with Iran, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Korea DPR, their contenders in their final qualifying group.

Divided opinion
Local media is divided over the ability of coach Bruno Metsu to lead the country to their second ever appearance in the FIFA World Cup finals. The Frenchman, who led Senegal to the quarter-finals at Korea/Japan 2002, further enhanced his reputation during his spell in charge of Emirate club Al Ain.

Metsu, who has been known as Abdul Karim since converting to Islam, guided Al Ain to victory in the AFC Asian Champions League in 2003 - the Emirates' finest football achievement since their appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals in Italy in 1990.

And after a short spell in the Qatari league, Metsu was hired as UAE coach after many years of out of the limelight. From day one, Metsu rebuilt the team, employing a mainly youthful squad. After installing some much-needed stability and harmony in the national team, he guided them to their first ever Gulf Cup in 2007, a notable achievement which made him an instant living legend in the Emirates.

Despite Metsu's outstanding success with the UAE, two home defeats by Iran and Syria in the current qualifiers elicited reservations over his ability to meet the expectations of the country's fans.

"I cannot say that this was the best we could have done, but ," he commented after the loss to Syria.

I would like to remind you that our goal to reach the final round of the qualifiers was accomplished, and this is the most important thing

UAE coach Bruno Metsu downplays the importance of the UAE's shock home loss to Syria

From sand to Switzerland
He has also been criticized for starting his training camp for next month's qualifiers late compared to other countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who kicked off their preparations two weeks ago. "I am the one responsible for preparing my team for our first match against Korea DPR in September, and I am convinced that we have enough time to be ready for this game," Metsu assured journalists.

The team will start their preparations this week in the Swiss ski resort of Crans Montana which is believed to be the sunniest plateau in the Alps. Following this breathtaking recreational trip, the team will head to France, where they will stay for nine days, playing a warm-up match against Algeria on 20 August in Paris.

They will then return to the capital Abu Dhabi for a final warm-up against Bahrain on the 29th of this month, and Metsu expects that before the end of August, his side will be in top form. "I know that we are the underdogs of our group but it all depends on the players. We have to believe in ourselves and be confident that we can beat any of the teams in our group."

"I have no promises to make and no long-term plans to discuss. My current focus is our first game on 9 September against Korea DPR."