The UAE confirmed top spot in Group A at the Asian Cup as the unbeaten Whites drew 1-1 with Thailand in Al Ain.
Ali Mabkhout gave the home side the perfect start at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. A surging run from left wing-back by Alhasan Saleh found Ismail Al Hammadi, the captain chipped onto the bar but the predatory Mabkhout was on hand to nod in a 46th international goal on his 66th appearance.
Thailand equalised just before half-time against the run of play. Chanathip Songkrasin’s lofted ball was not dealt with and although Khalid Essa blocked Thitiphan Puangjan’s backheeled first effort, the midfielder poked home the rebound to send the War Elephants’ fans into a frenzy.
The second half was a very open affair with both sides’ attacks looking threatening, although neither side could quite muster the quality required to forge a winner.
Here we rate the home players at the Hazza.
Khalid Essa – 8: Alert throughout, came off his line to snuff out an early counter-attack. One-handed stop from Kraisorn was pivotal. Has had his critics but is proving in this tournament why he is UAE No1.
Bandar Al Ahbabi – 7: The converted winger was able to roam forward incessantly in Zaccheroni’s admittedly cautious 5-4-1 approach. Took a knock though and didn’t emerge for the second half. He was missed.
Mohamed Ahmed – 7: The right-back turned centre-half has become a rock for club and country. One crunching early tackle on Songkrasin was music to the Hazza’s ears.
Khalifa Mubarak – 7: The bald-headed Al Nasr defender was a beast at the back for the UAE. A couple of charging challenges kept Thailand’s tricky attackers at bay.
Ismail Ahmed – 5: Looked as if he’d forgotten what sport he played as he donned a Petr Cech style rugby scrum cap. Used all his experience to steer the UAE to victory over India, but often caught on the back foot here.
Alhasan Saleh – 5: His run and cross were key to the opening goal as he fed Al Hammadi. Often ignored defensive responsibility though as Thailand’s attacks poured down his side.
Khalfan Mubarak – 7: The smallest UAE player on the pitch, but the War Elephants were unable to trample his impact on the game. Always an outlet going forward with his rapid interchange and mesmeric feet.
Majed Hassan – 6: Had been calls for him to start the India game, and the all-action Shabab Al Ahli man made himself busy in attack and defence. One crucial block halted an attack as Thailand grew in confidence.
Ali Salmin – 5: Started brightly as he and Hassan dominated the middle of the field. Faded though as Thailand’s rapid counters increasingly stretched the UAE midfield.
Ismail Al Hammadi – 6: The evergreen skipper looked back to his best after a miserable few years out with injury. Set up Mabkhout’s opener and carried the ball well. Reduced impact after the break though and gave way to Khalil.
Ali Mabkhout – 8: Set the tone with the opening goal, he is nearing a famous milestone following a 46th UAE goal in 66 outings. Threatened often and looks at his blistering best.
Mohamed Abdulrahman – 5: Replaced Al Ahbabi as Zaccheroni changed tack at the break. On his home pitch but looked overawed as the Whites’ midfield was overworked.
Ahmed Khalil – 6: Brought on to add ballast to the UAE attack. Rocketed one fierce free-kick over but otherwise saw little of the goal.
Ismail Matar N/A The masked Al Wahda man was thrown on as the UAE chased a winner, but he could not make himself a hero.
Bernd Stange seemingly won’t be missed by Syria after centre-back Ahmad Al Salih insisted the axed coach has been ‘100 per cent’ behind their failings at the Asian Cup so far.
Syria face a crunch match against holders Australia on Tuesday, needing to win to progress to the round of 16 after picking up just one point from two games so far in Group B.
Stange, 70, had been in charge since last January after coming out of retirement but has swiftly been replaced by former Syria left-back Fajr Ibrahim.
“I would blame the previous coach 100 percent. He didn’t have the right plans for us, and you can see the result,” the bearded centre-back told reporters in Al Ain.
“As soon as Fajr arrived at the pitch, we knew his tactics and his plans. We all like him and we all wanted him as head coach.”
German Stange is the second coach to be sacked during the Asian Cup’s group stages after Thailand gave the boot to Milovan Rajevac in response to their 4-1 defeat to India.
“I know the players and they have known me for a long time,” said Ibrahim. “We know each other very well. It was no more than shaking hands and starting the training session.”
Syria and Australia famously met in last year’s World Cup play-offs, with Tim Cahill booking the Socceroos’ flight to Russia thanks to his last-ditch goal that made it 3-2 over the two legs.
Al Salih is not only confident of his side posing a similar challenge again – he expects victory.
“We respect Australia, they are one of the favourites to win the title,” Al Salih added.
“But I’m sure we’re able to beat Australia. We scored at their ground and we can score against them again — even if Australia is probably the best team in Asia.”
Australia need only a draw to reach the last 16 and they are coming off a convincing 3-0 win over Palestine, while Group B surprise package Jordan are already through.
Hosts UAE have already made Asian Cup 2019’s knockouts. Now has come the time to complete their job against Thailand and top Group A.
India were brushed aside 2-0 last Thursday at Zayed Sports City, in a match that was closer than the scoreline suggests. This followed a 1-1 opening draw with Bahrain.
Monday’s opponents Thailand will have their eye on second spot after caretaker coach Sirisak Yodyardthai beat Bahrain 1-0. This followed the 4-1 humiliation at India’s hands that cost Milovan Rajevac his job.
Here are the talking points ahead of the meeting at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium:
Optimism was at a low ebb for the hosts coming into the tournament. Troubling results, allied with a lack of goals, meant that enthusiasm was tempered.
But victory against India represented an improvement – somewhat – in performance and certainly in the result. These steady steps are all part of the process for coach Alberto Zaccheroni – and he should know after winning the 2011 edition with Japan.
“First of all we are so happy that we won the last match and nearly qualified for the last 16,” said the 65-year-old. “But our focus will be on achieving the top spot and qualifying without looking or considering the result of the other match.
“In terms of performance the team is progressing, and I hope the development of the performance will progress further and in the coming match you’ll see something else.”
Sticking to this plan is worth the effort against the Thais. First place would represent validation, if not a noticeably easier route through to the deep end.
THE KHALFAN DILEMMA
From the moment 2015 AFC Player of the Year and creative heartbeat Omar Abdulrahman went down with a serious knee injury in October, Khalfan Mubarak became a figure of extraordinary importance for the UAE.
Zaccheroni’s 4-3-2-1 formation has been crafted with the Arabian Gulf League assist king in mind. Just like his team-mates, a disappointing opener against Bahrain was forgotten against India – and for Mubarak, a staggering solo goal was the highlight.
This is why the facial injury sustained in the second half against the Blue Tigers is such a problem. Extensive bleeding from the nose and his hooking on 85 minutes exemplified its severity.
But the 23-year-old trained at the Hazza on Sunday and should be available. But would a rest be advised, ahead of the round of 16?
With no like-for-like replacement in his squad, a big call awaits Zaccheroni.
بعد قليل المؤتمر الصحفي الخاص بمدرب منتخبنا الوطني السيد ألبيرتو زاكيروني و اللاعب إسماعيل أحمد للحديث عن لقاء الغد#منصور_يالأبيض #قدام_يالأبيض #عيال_زايد_قدها #كأس_آسيا2019#الإمارات_تايلاند pic.twitter.com/aMiIbT8Dxe— UAE NT (@uaent2019) January 13, 2019
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE THAIS
Several years of steady progress have threatened to come to a halt for the War Elephants.
They went within seconds of beating the UAE in World Cup 2018 qualifying, the 1-1 draw in Bangkok during June 2017 effectively killing Whites hoping of qualifying. Since then, diminutive playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin has also become a star in Japan.
But Rajevac’s dour nature put the handbrake on their advancement. Semi-final defeat in the winter’s AFF Suzuki Cup was a harbinger of what was to come in the UAE.
The talent, however, remains in the ranks. Caretaker Yodyardthai’s five-man defence sparked an upturn against Bahrain and he’ll now hope to stun the hosts.