For Australia, it is the last option left to qualify for their fifth consecutive World Cup. For the United Arab Emirates, it is the opportunity to get closer to their first World Cup since their baptism in 1990.
They will have no margin for error when they meet on Tuesday in Qatar in the Asian playoff that will be defined by Peru’s opponent six days later in another playoff. The winner will access Group D of the World Cup, where France, Denmark and Tunisia await.
Both teams finished third in the Asian qualifiers, and will fight for the right to face the fifth from South America.
After reaching the ideal score in their first three games of the Asia third round — extending a winning streak to 11 — Australia won just one of their next seven games to fall behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the group.
This condemned them to go through another playoff for the World Cup ticket. But unlike last time, when Australia defeated Syria and then Honduras in two-leg series in the continental and intercontinental playoffs, both meetings will be single matches and will be played in Qatar.
“The importance is absolute,” said Australia manager Graham Arnold, Guus Hiddink’s assistant when the Socceroos intervened in the 2006 World Cup. players and for the nation.
Australia got back on track with a 2-1 win over Jordan in a friendly last week, just their second win in eight games.
The anteroom has not been ideal for the Australians. They will miss steering wheel Tom Rogic, a figure in Scottish champions Celtic, for personal reasons. Also ruled out were Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan, both with experience in the English Premier League, after a season in which they played little.
Arnold says that having played 14 of the 18 qualifying games outside of Australia due to border restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic helped the team have greater cohesion.
For the Emirates, being so close to home is a motivation.
The national federation purchased more than 5,000 tickets so fans could make the short trip to Qatar for the playoffs. They sold out immediately. They hope to return in November when Qatar will host the first World Cup in the Middle East.
Rodolfo Arraubarrena, the Argentine who replaced Bert van Marwijk as Emirates manager in February, opened with a win over South Korea to seal third place in the group.
“Our confidence is through the roof,” captain Walid Abbas said. “We have players with enough international experience to respond to the pressure.”
“But it’s 90 minutes, and the team that best deals with those pressures, and the one that best takes advantage of the opportunities, will come out the winner,” he added.
The Emirates called up Omar Abdulrahman, the creative midfielder who in 2016 was proclaimed the best player in Asia. Injuries have plagued Abdulrahman in recent years, but he will step onto the pitch to form a partnership with Ali Mabkhout.
Mabkhout, 31, has scored 81 international goals, more than the combined total of the Australian squad. He was the scorer that gave the Emirates a 1-0 win when the teams met in the 2019 Asian Cup quarter-finals, knocking out the defending champions of the tournament.
“I think they are two very close teams, considering the close matches in recent years and coming third in our respective groups,” Mabkhout said. “Being 180 minutes from a World Cup is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often. We are masters of our destiny.”