The 10 men of Palestine held Syria to a 0-0 draw in their opening game of the 2019 Asian Cup.
Palestine, making just their second appearance at the continental showpiece, survived the second half sending off of Mohammed Saleh to earn a stoic point in Sharjah.
Here are three talking points from the game.
SYRIA FAIL TO SHINE AFTER WORLD CUP HEROICS
Although Australia, South Korea, Iran and Japan are seen as the powerhouses of Asian football, much is expected of Syria at this tournament following a coming of age party during their memorable road towards qualifying for last summer’s World Cup.
It was a journey that ultimately ended in an Australian blockade as the Socceroos somehow stumbled to Russia via the narrowest of play-off victories against Bernd Stange’s men in oceanic qualifying.
The Qasioun Eagles – who have never even been beyond the initial stages of the Asian Cup in five previous appearances – almost soared into a maiden World Cup when they ascended to the fourth and final round of Asian World Cup qualifying in October 2017.
Australia needed an extra-time strike from Tim Cahill to earn a narrow 3-2 aggregate win to advance to the inter-confederation play-offs where passage to Russia was secured with a two-legged 3-1 win over Honduras.
Needless to say, their heroic journey has led to a feeling that big things can be achieved by Omar Khrbin, Omar Al Somah and Co in the UAE this month.
Syria will need to show plenty more guile and craft though than they did here against limited Palestine who were more than happy to see the game stagnate into an attritional affair.
Even though their opponents were determined not to play an expansive and open game, Syria resorted to pumping long balls forward, with next to no quality offered in front of goal. That will need to change against Jordan on Thursday.
PLUCKY PALESTINE RECEIVE A JOLT FROM JORDAN
If Palestine were looking for inspiration ahead of taking on the rising force of Syria, they need have looked no further than the performance from underdogs Jordan in the earlier Group B kick-off against Australia.
The reigning champions were dispatched 1-0 at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium thanks to a mix of steely determination, focus and heroic defending – with particular mention needing to be made of goalkeeper Amir Shafi, who made several top stops.
Palestine’s task over in Sharjah was made all the more harder by the 69th-minute dismissal of centre-back Saleh, who received a second yellow for a crude elbow to the head of Khrbin.
It must have felt like déjà vu for the Lions of Canaan, who have now had a player sent off in both of their opening group games at the Asian Cup, with Ahmed Mahajna dismissed against Japan four years ago.
But they roared into life to pounce on a vital point. The red card meant an already scrappy game descended into a backs to the wall rear-guard effort from Noureddine Ould Ali’s men, who came through with flying colours, and will now head into a daunting second encounter with the Socceroos with a spring in their step.
SYRIA NEED STAR DUO TO SHINE
Syria’s two star men arrive in the Emirates amid differing fortunes in front of goal – Bernd Stange will need both Khrbin and Al Somah singing from the same hymn sheet if Syria are to give their fans another harmonious footballing experience.
Veteran Al Ahli striker Al Somah, 29, comes into the tournament in fine form for his Saudi employers – he has 11 strikes in 13 Pro League games this season, including nine in his last seven outings.
He is already a hero for his nation having scored the decisive goal in a 2-2 draw with Iran in September 2017 that saw them advance to that play-off with Australia – it was his first Syria goal in a stop-start international career.
Youngster Khrbin, 24, is the perfect foil in attack and is well known to UAE audiences, having enjoyed a prolific stint with Arabian Gulf League side Al Dhafra (17 league goals were registered in 26 games during an 18-month spell between 2016-17 before Saudi behemoths Al Hilal came calling).
He was even more crucial in Syria’s run to the brink of World Cup qualification with 10 goals on the road to Russia. Yet he is in poor form ahead of the Asian Cup, having not scored for his club side since April.
Neither man could find the breakthrough against a plucky Palestine. Syria cannot afford either to endure another off day in Thursday’s clash with Jordan – anything less than victory will leave them facing the precarious scenario of likely needing to get a result against champions Australia in their Group B finale.
Australia’s Asian Cup title defence suffered a huge blow on Sunday when they were stunned 1-0 by Jordan in their worst ever start to the competition.
Graham Arnold had confidently predicted victory in their Group B opener but they were undone by Anas Bani-Yaseen’s powerful first-half header. With the Socceroos in transition and coming into the tournament on the back of a dismal World Cup campaign, they are already under pressure to retain their title.
Our Hero of the Day – or in this case, heroes – is naturally Jordan.
The only goal came from a corner on 26 minutes, when defender Bani-Yaseen escaped Massimo Luongo’s marking and powered his header into the top corner.
In the second half, the Socceroos pressed for an equaliser, with Celtic forward Tom Rogic’s stinging shot was kept out by Amir Shafi, before substitute Chris Ikonomidis’ attempt at a follow-up was smothered by the defence.
Rogic passed up a golden opportunity for the equaliser when he was free in the box but scooped his shot well over.
South Sudanese refugee Awer Mabil then smashed one off the upright with Shafi beaten, before Ikonomidis’s header was scrambled off the line.
With three minutes to go, Jamie Maclaren had a goal chalked off for offside and with the last action of the game, Shafi pulled off a superb double save to deny Ikonomidis and Jackson Irvine.
Team spirit – As is the case when David meets Goliath, the minnows were reliant on a vital mix of rigid defence, goalkeeping heroics and an insatiable appetite and focus. Stopper Shafi pulled off a clutch of fine saves, most notably from Rogic, Ikonomidis and Irvine.
Concentration levels needed to be at their highest for Vital Borkelmans’ men, who often had to feed off scraps and make the most of their 23 per cent possession, but their six shots on target was the same amount as their illustrious opponents.
The majority of the focus will of course be directed at the misgivings of the reigning champions, but take nothing away from a sparkling team performance that now gives Jordan a real shot at making the knockout stages.
Ball retention – Seeing less of the ball is always to be expected against an elite opponent at a major tournament, yet the fact only three players recorded a pass completion over 80 per cent against the Socceroos will worry Borkelmans.
Midfielder Khalil Bani Ateyah led the way with 82.6 per cent success rate, with defender Tareq Khattab (81.8) and striker Mousa Suleiman (80) the other two players who kept the ball well.
Elsewhere, figures of 56.3, 55, 44.4 and 41.2 perhaps explain why so much pressure had to be soaked up by the Middle East side. Against sharper opponents, or without the heroics of skipper Shafi, this sloppiness might well have been punished.
They will be rightly proud of their performance in humbling the champions, but a nation and coach Borkelmans will hope Jordan have plenty in reserve for tricky tests against Palestine and Syria.
Syria were unlucky not to make the 2018 World Cup after losing in a play-off to the limited Socceroos – who are a team in transition under Graham Arnold – and will provide another stern test in their next fixture, while
“They were running like they had three lungs,” said Borkelmans after the victory. There is plenty more running to be done if rarefied air of the knockout stages is to be achieved.
UAE saviour Ahmed Khalil has urged his team-mates to “see the solutions” after the 2019 Asian Cup hosts opened with a fortunate 1-1 draw against Bahrain.
The Whites appeared set for a demoralising loss after stand-in striker Mohamed Al Romaihi’s 78th-minute strike, at the second attempt, before a stunned Zayed Sports City.
However, 2015 AFC Player of the Year Khalil would then rise off the substitutes’ and mark his 100th cap with a calm penalty-kick after fellow replacement Mohamed Marhoon was harshly penalised for a handball.
A buoyant India are up next in Group A on Thursday at the same venue, courtesy of Sunday’s shock 4-1 thrashing of hotly tipped Thailand. This means the UAE must be much improved.
“Today was more important to not lose the game,” the Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club forward said after Saturday’s match. “The good thing is that we came back and the more important is we have to think about next game.
“Every player feels responsible for what’s gone on today and they think about the next game and to hopefully get three points, to see the solutions to get three points.”
Alberto Zaccheroni’s men have been heavily scrutinised in the run-up the tournament after they won just three of 13 matches during 2018.
Khalil, though, refused to blame “pressure” for this poor display.
The 27-year-old said: “It’s not pressure. This is the first game and this is football.
“Sometimes, you maybe don’t play well and you win. But in the tournament you have to give the maximum, you have to fight and you have to work more.
“This is how we came back and we can do it for the next game: see which solutions we go for to get three points and hopefully we come back.”
A victory against India will put the UAE in a strong position to proceed from their pool, either automatically through the top two or as one of four third-placed finishers.