Alberto Zaccheroni heaped praise on a young and energetic India team that posed plenty of problems for his UAE side – although the Italian admired the Whites’ “clinical” finishing that earned a key 2-0 win at the Asian Cup.
The host nation were harried and harangued for large parts of an entertaining encounter at Zayed Sports City on Thursday night – one that saw the UAE go to the top of Group A with four points following their win and saw them put one foot in the knockout stages.
Veteran Italian tactician Zaccheroni thanked the 43,206 fans inside the stadium for supporting his side – even if most of the noise being generated was by passionate Indian followers.
“I am delighted to have been able to make UAE fans happy with this win,” said Zaccheroni, the 65-year-old ex-Juventus, AC and Inter Milan coach who won this competition with Japan in 2011.
“I know they were disappointed after the first draw. I would like to thank all of those fans that came here tonight and supported us.”
Zaccheroni and his charges were under pressure following a below par performance and result in their opening game of the tournament against Gulf neighbours Bahrain last Saturday. Ahmed Khalil’s late penalty earned a late point in a 1-1 stalemate.
The result was much better against Stephen Constantine’s Blue Tigers, who had thrashed Thailand 4-1 in their first game, even if the UAE were outplayed for large spells.
But a deft Khalfan Mubarak finish before the break put the UAE 1-0 up after being teed up by Al Jazira team-mate Ali Mabkhout. And it was the lethal Pride of Abu Dhabi striker who secured victory with a late second for his side.
The win moved the UAE onto four points, with India second on goal difference from Thailand who beat Bahrain 1-0 earlier in the day.
And Zaccheroni was pleased with how his side dealt with the threat of the Blue Tigers.
“We started well, but with time we struggled with the pace of the Indian team,” he added.
“In the second half, we changed the way we play; we were tackling more, recovering the ball quicker and were more focused. We were clinical in front of goal and got the second goal.
“Congratulations for my team for the result and the performance. India have a bright future ahead of them.”
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.