Male: Darren Stewart will send his Maldives side out to face Oman in Male on Tuesday knowing defeat will bring the Indian Ocean islanders’ hopes of appearing at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup finals to an end.
The Maldives lie in third place in Group D, which has seen Stewart and his team pitted against Palestine and Bhutan in a challenging draw for the South Asian nation.
But with one win under their belts against Bhutan, Maldives will look to, at least, avoid defeat when they take on Pim Verbeek’s team.
“As always we will be out there trying to win, if we win we are still in it, but if we lose we are out,” says Stewart. “So we will give it everything against one of the Middle East's most powerful football nations.
“Oman are a very organised, and an extremely strong and fit team who have been on numerous camps to qualify for the Asian Cup, so we, the players and the coaching staff, know what we are up against.”
A loss coupled with anything other than a defeat for Palestine against Bhutan would leave the Maldives six points adrift of the Omanis, having lost twice to the Gulf state during the campaign.
With head-to-head records counting in the event of a tie between countries, the Maldives would be incapable of climbing over Oman in the standings and would be destined to finish outside the top two places which secure berths at the finals of the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in just over a year’s time.
“As you know, we have a tough group and to still be in with a chance of qualifying with three matches to go is a testament to the effort of all the players,” said Stewart.
“That’s especially the case considering our lack of preparation compared to nearly all the other teams in the qualifying stage for one reason or another. This is a fact, but at the end of the day I am the coach and I will take full responsibility no matter what.”
Despite the challenge that the Maldives have faced against the bigger teams in the group – Oman have appeared at the Asian Cup Finals on three occasions while Palestine made their debut in 2015 – Stewart believes the campaign has brought positives for the country.
“We will benefit in the long term from our experience in this competition, especially in terms of being fitter and our organisation in preparing for all our matches,” he said.
“If we don't learn from this great experience then it has been a waste of time as every single player has given absolutely everything they had in every match. I am very proud to be their coach.
“Fitness and preparation are the main issues we will all learn from. For example, for our first match against Palestine we had six days preparation and Palestine had five weeks in Qatar with four friendly matches preparing for our match.
"This is not an excuse, it’s a fact and one I hope we all learn from.”
Palestine, meanwhile, can secure their place in next year’s draw for the Asian Cup Finals when they entertain a Bhutan side they defeated 2-0 on Matchday Three.
Yassir Pinto and Abdelatif Bahdari scored the goals that gave the Palestinians all three points despite a disappointing display and coach Abdel Nasser Barakat is hoping his team can rediscover their form on Tuesday.
“We have worked very hard to prepare the players for the next match in order to show a better performance that we did in the last meeting against Bhutan,” said Barakat.
“I hope that all the Palestinian fans will show up and support the national team because winning this match will secure our place in the AFC Asian Cup for the second time.”