For Australia, it’s a last-ditch double-shot for a place at a fifth straight World Cup. For the United Arab Emirates, it’s a chance to get one match closer to a first World Cup appearance since its debut in 1990.
There’ll be no second chances when the Socceroos and United Arab Emirates meet Tuesday in a playoff in Qatar for the right to take on Peru six days later in another playoff with a place alongside France, Denmark and Tunisia in Group D at the World Cup at stake.
Both teams finished third in their groups in Asian qualifying, leaving them vying to meet the fifth-place team from South America.
After taking maximum points from the first three games in the third round of Asian qualifiers — extending its winning streak to 11 games — Australia won just one of its next seven to finish behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the group.
That meant another playoff route to the World Cup. But unlike last time, when Australia beat Syria and then Honduras on a home-and away basis in the continental and inter-continental playoffs, both matches will be winner-takes-all and both played in Qatar.
“It would mean everything,” said Australia's head coach Graham Arnold, an assistant to Guus Hiddink when the Socceroos played at the 2006 tournament. “I don’t want anything more in life at this moment than to qualify for the World Cup — for the players and for the nation."
Australia warmed up with a 2-1 win over Jordan in a friendly last week, just its second win in eight games. With star player Tom Rogic of Scottish champion Celtic withdrawing for personal reasons and former Premier League regulars Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan short of game time, preparation has not been ideal.
Arnold said playing 14 of 18 qualifying matches away from home because of the Australia's strict travel regulations at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic had help the squad bond for what has become a familiar route to soccer's marquee tournament.
For the UAE team, being close to home is motivation.
The national football federation bought more than 5,000 tickets for fans making the short trip to Qatar for the playoff, all of which were quickly snapped up. They're hoping to be back there in November when Qatar hosts the first World Cup in the Middle East.
Rodolfo Arraubarrena, who replaced Bert van Marwijk as UAE head coach in February, started well when he led the team to a victory over the already qualified South Korea to seal a third-place finish in its group.
“Our confidence in ourselves is great,” UAE captain Walid Abbas said. “We have players who have enough international experience to deal with any pressure.
“But it is 90 minutes, in which the team most able in dealing with these pressures, and the most successful in exploiting opportunities, will win."
UAE has recalled 2016 Asian Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman to the team. The veteran playmaker, who has struggled with injuries in recent years, will once again link up with Ali Mabkhout.
The 31-year-old Mabkhout has scored 81 international goals, more than the Australian squad combined, with his latest coming in a 1-1 draw with Gambia on May 29.
He scored the goal that gave the UAE a 1-0 win when the teams in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Asian Cup, putting defending champion Australia out of the tournament.
“I think the two teams are evenly matched, based on close matches in recent years and the fact that we both finished third in our respective groups,” Mabkhout said. “Being just 180 minutes away from a World Cup is an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often. Our fate is in our own hands.”
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