Indian football has rarely experienced a high like the one their emphatic 4-1 victory over Thailand in their 2019 Asian Cup opener produced. And for most of the first half in their 2-0 defeat against UAE on Thursday, it seemed as if things were going to get even better for the Blue Tigers.
Manager Stephen Constantine predictably set his side up to soak up pressure and attack on the break. With their confidence soaring, the players looked charged up, closing down the opposition excellently and denying them the time and space to find their rhythm.
For much of the game, India ensured that the host nation didn’t feel entirely at home.
In fact, despite UAE enjoying the lion’s share of possession throughout the encounter, it was India who provided a greater goal threat, particularly in the first half.
The most dangerous weapon in their arsenal was Ashique Kuruniyan. The youngster was the tip of the sword and the experienced Sunil Chhetri was the one wielding it.
Every time possession was turned over, Ashique put his head down and made darting runs in behind with Chhetri instinctively looking to find him at every opportunity. The strategy made sure the UAE’s defence were never at ease, constantly looking over their shoulder.
It nearly came to fruition as well. Chhetri intercepted a pass in the centre circle and released Ashique into space, whose shot from inside the area in the 12th minute was well saved by Khalid Essa.
India’s all-time leading scorer came close himself, when he powered his header right at the Emirati custodian following a delicious cross from Anirudh Thapa.
However, the visitors switched off just before half-time and Khalfan Mubarak was allowed to stroll into the box, latch onto Ali Mabkhout’s pass and slot it away. Once he got to the ball, Khalfan’s quality shone through but the reality is he should never have been allowed to reach it. The defending was indecisive at best and India paid the price.
A quick exchange with Chhetri saw the lively Udanta Singh strike the underside of the bar in the second half before the Indians were caught against the run of play late on, with Mabkhout this time applying the rather classy finishing touch. There was still time for Sandesh Jhingan to rattle the crossbar again with a header at the death.
“It was a tight game. UAE are a good side, and they converted their chances. When you get your chances, you got to convert them. If we could have taken ours, it could have been different,” Chhetri said after the contest and he’s absolutely right.
There was an opportunity to do something special against a UAE side that hasn’t been at their best but they squandered it along with their chances in front of goal.
The real test of character comes next though. Will they let this defeat deflate them and retreat to India with their tails between their legs? Or do they dig deep and ensure their historic win over Thailand was not a mere flash in the pan? Chhetri for one is certainly leaning toward the latter.
“We are still in the running. As a team, we are united and we are ready to fight, and that’s what we are going to do against Bahrain,” he said.
It’s imperative that India take the positives from this performance, one they should be immensely proud of and on another day, could’ve resulted in victory.
Crucially, they seem to have found an identity in this competition as a formidable unit capable of swift and dangerous attacks on the break.
That can still hold them in good stead going forward as long as they stick to their guns and most importantly, believe.
Khalfan Mubarak and Ali Mabkhout were the scorers for the UAE in a 2-0 win over India that was anything but routine.
The Blue Tigers were the better side for a lot of this game, but the clinical Whites were victorious thanks to a virtuoso display from lethal Al Jazira striker Mabkhout.
He and Mubarak combined for the flourishing talent to put the Whites ahead before the break with a deft finish.
India were industrious and dangerous throughout, but faded a little after the break and the UAE sealed victory late on with Mabkhout grabbing a killer second goal.
Here, Matt Jones takes a closer look at his performance.
The UAE have been a difficult watch under Alberto Zaccheroni, and this game for large parts was no different as they struggled to cope with India’s guile and pace.
But one very bright shining light for the Whites is the world-class Mabkhout, who was instrumental in both goals. He ran into the channel to collect possession and then patiently waited for Mubarak to arrive and set him free to give the UAE the lead.
Then, after India faded, he killed the game off in emphatic style.
Got right – All round play
Mabkhout has long struck fear into Arabian Gulf League defences – he plundered a scarcely believable 33 goals (eight more than Al Wasl’s Fabio De Lima) three seasons ago as the Pride of Abu Dhabi lifted the title.
But amidst the good work done at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium by Henk ten Cate and Marcel Keizer in that time, as well as a visible maturity displayed by the 28-year-old in terms of finishing chances, the lethal marksman has also become a dangerous creator of goals.
As well as his league-leading 15 strikes this season, he also has four assists in the AGL – joint fifth most. Two of those have been for Mubarak who he combined with to devastating effect here for the opening goal.
This is yet another problem for defenders. Because even if they can stop Mabkhout scoring, they now have to stop him assisting goals.
Got wrong – Isolated
This was as much a fault of the team rather than anything the hard-working Mabkhout did. Too often he cast a lonely figure up front. He would sprint into the channels to receive a long punt up field, but after collecting and protecting the ball, colleagues in a white shirt were too slow to catch up to him.
Could Mabkhout be to blame slightly? Although he teed up Mubarak for the opener, he was a little wasteful with the ball, posting just a 73.7 per cent pass success rate. He also lost the ball eight times, making only two recoveries.
Coach Zaccheroni’s unadventurous tactics certainly didn’t help though, too scared to thrown men up in support of his star man, for fear of being caught on the break by dangerous India.
He was the leading scorer at this competition four years ago as the UAE finished an impressive third. They are not so thrilling to watch four years down the road, but Mabkhout is every bit as deadly, more so in fact.
If he can keep scoring, something he is so naturally gifted at, the hosts have a fighting chance of hoisting a first continental title come February 1.
The UAE won for the first time at the 2019 Asian Cup, star talents Khalfan Mubarak and Ali Mabkhout the scorers in a 2-0 win over India.
The Blue Tigers were the better side for large parts, but a fine opening was undone when Al Jazira colleagues Mubarak and Mabkhout combined for the former to put the Whites ahead before the break.
India were again industrious and dangerous after the break, but faded a little and the UAE sealed victory late on with Mabkhout grabbing a killer second goal.
Here we look at the game’s talking points.
BATMAN AND ROBIN ARE UAE’S SUPERHEROES
Ali Mabkhout has long been one of the UAE’s main poster boys, alongside Omar Abdulrahman. One of the biggest gripes in recent years though has been the apparent refusal or inability to recognise the ability of his Al Jazira team-mate Khalfan Mubarak – long proclaimed as the future of the national team.
His goal proved the turning point in this pulsating encounter – but one wonders if he would’ve been on the field to score it had Amoory not been ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.
Alberto Zaccheroni is not known as a champion of pretty football. But it was a beautiful move that led to the opening goal, with the hard-working Mabkhout holding up play and teeing up Mubarak, who showed lovely feet to outwit Anirudh Thapa and Anas Edathodika and send a clipped finish high past Gurpreet Singh.
It’s a partnership that has routinely combined to devastating effect for the Pride of Abu Dhabi this season – Jazira sit second in the Arabian Gulf League, three points behind leaders Sharjah.
Their 37 goals is bettered by no one, with 62 per cent of them scored by either Mabkhout (15) or Mubarak (eight). The deadly duo account for 38 per cent of assists (Mabkhout has four, Mubarak 10).
That it was Mabkhout setting up Mubarak for the Whites’ opening goal last night was uncommon but not unusual. Mabkhout predictably leads the AGL in goalscoring but has set up two of Mubarak’s eight goals. The 23-year-old midfielder has laid on a third (five) of Mabkhout’s goals.
Can the UAE win a maiden Asian Cup on home soil? That remains to be seen. The UAE are hardly scintillating viewing under Zaccheroni, but with this dynamic duo on the field, anything seems possible.
INSPIRATIONAL INDIA HARD DONE BY
Mesmeric in their opening 4-1 thrashing of Thailand four days earlier, India were no less entertaining and enterprising here in defeat.
Stephen Constantine’s side might have been defeated, but the coach would have been elated with their constant energy and ingenuity.
Roared on by a vociferous sea of blue shirted supporters in the crowd throughout the 90 minutes, their fans deserved a goal as much as the team.
Impressive in defeat they may have been, but Constantine and Co will also wonder how they failed to take anything away from the game – they harried and harangued ageing Whites centre-back Ismail Ahmed, the veteran Al Ain defender stretched to his vert limits by India’s pacy and predatory attackers.
The UAE faded after a bright start and Khalid Essa was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers in the first half, forced to make two smart stops, first from Ashique Kuruniyan who brought a fine one-handed save out of the Boss custodian.
Minutes later he repelled Sunil Chhetri’s fearsome header, although he was a bystander when the best move of the game saw Udanta Singh thump the underside of the bar.
India were even robbed of the consolation their efforts were at least deserving of when Sandesh Jhingan’s stoppage time header again thudded against the bar.
But they must remember this is not the end of their tournament. The result leaves them second in Group B and still in the driving seat for an automatic berth for the round of 16, especially with winless Bahrain left to play.
There’s plenty of bite left in the Blue Tigers, who will give any opponent in the knockout stages a roaring good game.
UAE CLINICAL WHILE INDIA IMPRESS
The UAE were far from flawless but they were, above anything else, clinical. While India deservedly earned plaudits for the way they took the game to hosts 18 places above them in the FIFA world rankings, it is the Whites who head into the final group game top of the table and favourites to remain there.
Constantine argued after the game the least his side deserved was a draw, and he was right. Twice hitting the woodwork and twice bringing fine stops out of Essa. But lose they still did, and after throwing themselves into the game and attacking the home side constantly in the first half, they sadly ran out of steam in the second half.
The UAE were under siege for large parts of the game, but they also showed all their experience in repelling their opponents and as the Blue Tigers faded, they pounced to seal the win late on through the dangerous Mabkhout.
Veteran defender Ahmed, 33, at times was marshalling a ragged-looking backline, used all his nous to snuff out chances for the wily Chhetri and an exciting looking India attack all game, even though he at times looked off the pace.
As Chhetri and his colleagues ran out of steam in the dying embers of the game, Ahmed was calm and composed as he cleverly urged his side forward, looking for the killer goal rather than sitting and protecting what they had, knowing India had the ability to grab an equaliser.