Maradona: Saudi Arabia have taken the UAE’s pulse

Diego Maradona believes United Arab Emirates can outrank Australia in their FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying pool, but that finishing above Saudi Arabia will be an uphill challenge. The UAE are fourth in Group B, behind the Aussies on goal difference and leaders Saudi Arabia and Japan by a point. The top two reach Russia 2018 automatically, while the third-placed team must navigate two playoffs to reach the tournament.

“It’s very difficult because the key result was the 1-0 defeat to Australia in Abu Dhabi, when Tim Cahill scored,” Maradona, who lives in Dubai, told Sport360. “Australia won with a goal that, in my opinion, was a big mistake.

“Ok, Cahill is an experienced player, but if I’m Mohanad Salem, and you come and push me, I push you harder. Salem is one of the best Emirati central defenders, but he had to break Cahill in that play. And I’m not speaking about with violence, but with the kind of strong body he has, he had to send Cahill outside the pitch. Cahill was smarter. I would say to him, 'Next time somebody pushes you on that way, you don’t play anymore with me. Cahill can’t win over you, Cahill has to fly and fall with the supporters, because he is taking you away the chance to go to a World Cup.”

need to improve the mentality, the lack of concentration – during the game against Iraq was driving me crazy. Iraq didn’t want it because they didn’t know what to do with the ball. They came here with the idea to draw or lose by a small margin, but when they saw that one goal was enough for UAE , they saw an open door and they got the courage to test and attack.

“But that Australia result has complicated everything, because now they have to face many tough games and they have to win almost all of them: Japan and Saudi Arabia here and Australia away. I’m not scared about Australia, they are mostly long balls and headers. I watched Australia versus Thailand, and Thailand deserved to win that game. They were playing better.

“But I’m worried about Saudi. I don’t know why but it seems Saudi have taken the UAE’s pulse. When the Saudi shirt is flying, the UAE shirt remains on the floor. UAE have to improve their mentality to balance that situation, but to get that they have to work, they have to say to themselves, 'We are playing for our life'."

United Arab Emirates have appeared in one World Cup. They finished bottom of Group D at Italy 1990, but did score two impressive goals, courtesy of Khalid Ismaïl’s left-footer against West Germany and Ali Thani Jumaa’s thumping header against eventual champions West Germany.

Mahdi Ali’s current class is captained by Ismail Matar, who won the adidas Golden Ball at a FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2003 that featured the likes of Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, James Milner and Carlos Tevez.