SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – From beloved underdogs to troublesome outsiders, that’s likely to be the story for the UAE as they prepare for their Asian Cup semi-final against Australia.
You can’t deny the superb heart, determination and tenacity the UAE showed in their win over Japan in a dramatic penalty shootout that saw the Emiratis advance as the reigning champions’ biggest stars wilted under pressure but a bigger test awaits them in Newcastle on Tuesday.
Initially that script called for the Socceroos to play traditional rival Japan in a final that would make amends for both teams’ poor showings at the World Cup in Brazil.
But after the hosts’ shock loss to South Korea, it looked like the match would take place at the semi-final stage instead, giving football fans and the media at large the match-up they were craving, one game early.
It seemed inevitable that, at some stage, the two ‘best’ teams in Asia would go head-to-head to extend a rivalry which Japan have held the upper hand on the Socceroos for the better part of half a decade.
Mahdi Ali and his team had other ideas and the UAE story rolls along to a script similar to that of Vince Vaughan and his chums in Dodgeball.
And you can’t help but think the AFC and Football Federation Australia marketing machines are a bit miffed with the UAE knocking off the four-time champions to deny them their marquee battle.
But where does that leave the UAE?
The answer is between a rock and a hard place.
Japan coach Javier Aguirre wasn’t lying post-match when he said the UAE team “played the match of their lives” against the Samurai Blue.
They threw their bodies in front of viciously struck shots and defended with a backs-to-the wall mentality for nigh on 110 of 120 minutes of football, repelling attack after attack.
And despite Gaku Shibasaki’s 81st minute equaliser, the Emiratis found a way to prevail.
The euphoric moment of victory, following Ismail Ahmed’s penalty kick, washed over almost all of Stadium Australia, a crowd reveling in the beauty of a tournament upset from an underdog wonderfully appreciated by the supporters.
A big part of what is next is how the UAE and their players recover for what is sure to be a physical game of football.
It’s what the Socceroos are renowned for and with big midfielders Mark Milligan and Mile Jedinak both available for coach Ange Postecoglou he will be tempted to play both in a deep midfield tandem to test Omar Abdulrahman.
“We have only two days [to prepare] and Australia, they have three, and we also have to travel tomorrow in the afternoon,” said Ali. “So we try to make a good recovery and prepared for the next match. We don’t have a long time. We have to do our job, to play some good football.”
The question remains: can Ali prepare his team both physically and mentally for the game of their lives?
Omar looked a little tired – a concern considering his recent injury problems – and there might be a slight cloud over his brother, Amer Abdulrahman, as well.
Amer was highly influential in the first half against Japan, before being substituted after just 54 minutes.
Only internally did it seem the UAE were expected to make the semis.
“Winning the game was our first goal and we now have achieved our most important goal, which was to qualify to the semi-final,” Ali said.
Oh Omar… https://t.co/qAdK2VjDwq
— Sport360° (@Sport_360) January 23, 2015
“Since we’ve reached the semi-final, we hope we reach the final as well.”
To get there they have to take on a host nation who cruised to victory over China on the back of a stunning Tim-Cahill brace and a group of fans who have been afflicted with Cahill-fever after his stunning bicycle kick goal against China.
UAE will have to deal with a sold out crowd and a sea of gold if they are to once again flip the tournament script.
And that may just be the hardest thing of all. Upsetting a rampant Australia in the football heartland of Newcastle in front of a 30,000 strong parochial crowd where their own support will be drowned out.
Considering their efforts so far, however, you cannot rule out Mahdi Ali’s men dodging, dipping and diving their way through to the final.