The Whites recorded a second 1-1 draw of the tournament against spirited Thailand in Al Ain on Monday, with the result seeing the tournament hosts top Group A and emerge from the first phase unbeaten.
But it was another less than convincing performance from Alberto Zaccheroni’s side – who needed a late penalty from Ahmed Khalil to rescue a point in their opening game against Bahrain, before India were unconvincingly negotiated 2-0 on Thursday.
Ali Mabkhout gave the hosts an early lead at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday, but Zaccheroni, the iconic Italian former AC Milan and Japan coach, deployed a defensive 5-4-1 formation and his side sat back after the opener, inviting pressure.
The War Elephants duly equalised before the break through Thitipan Puangchan, with neither side producing the requisite quality in the second half to win the game.
Nevertheless, the draw was good enough to seal top spot, and Al Ain goalkeeper Essa questioned why dissenting voices were so vociferous.
“I don’t think we should dwell too much on the performance as we have still managed to finish at the top of the group,” said the Whites’ No1, who was called upon to make an impressive stop from Adisak Kraisorn before the break with the UAE 1-0 ahead.
The Boss stopper did, however, acknowledge that the host nation will have to improve in the knockout stages.
“Yes, we have to adapt better especially the players who have just come into the side,” added Essa, 29.
“The team next will be more difficult and we will have to be very cautious and have to concentrate better. We are aware that one mistake will put us out of the tournament.
“We will have to look to minimise the mistakes. We have to sit in the coming days and analyse our performance.”
The giants of Asian football are marching along nicely at the 2019 Asian Cup – Iran, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are all on course to feature in the knockouts.
Hosts the UAE, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Iraq are all in the chasing pack, hoping to cause an upset. One name that is probably being overlooked by most though – and dangerously so – is that of Jordan.
It’s to be expected. According to FIFA, they are the joint sixth-lowest ranked nation of the 24 competing in the Emirates this month (109th alongside North Korea), but that does not tell the full story of Jordanian progression on the international stage in recent years.
They have only lost six times since the start of 2017, a run that has taken in 29 games. Since losing their opening game of 2018 – a 2-1 defeat to Finland – disappointment has been tasted only four times in the following 16 games. And one of those was a tight 2-1 reversal at the hands of World Cup finalists Croatia in October.
Eye-catching results during this impressive run have included a 3-2 defeat of Denmark, who reached the round of 16 in Russia, a 1-1 draw with Gulf heavyweights Saudi, plus toppling reigning champions Australia in their Asian Cup opener.
Their final game of the group, against arguably its weakest occupant, was actually Jordan’s most disappointing result and performance.
They dominated the first 45 minutes and would have gone in at half-time wondering how they had not pierced the Palestine goal-line. They were second best in the second half and ultimately will be pleased with a point.
After their momentous victory against the Socceroos and the comprehensive 2-0 victory against Syria – who advanced to a play-off with the Aussies in the penultimate round of Asian qualifying for last summer’s World Cup – to not secure maximum points on their path of progress will have irked head coach Vital Borkelmans.
But the vitally important fact here is that progress has been made, and now Jordan have the chance to make a third quarter-final appearance in their last four Asian Cup appearances.
The elite will view them as knockout stage fodder to their folly. They are a rising force and anyone underestimating Jordan could well receive a jolt of embarrassment.
Two of the Far East’s biggest powers will meet at Al Nayhan Stadium on Wednesday – but both will be saving their full force for the knockout rounds.
Indeed, two of the biggest stories could be sitting in the stands …
Prodigal Son returns
South Korea coach Paulo Bento will have been wincing for every knock and tumble Son Heung-min has taken in the Premier League over the last month.
Don’t let their six points out of six in Group C fool you, though. Son is needed, and badly.
The Taegeuk Warriors mustered 16 attempts against the Philippines and a further 19 in their clash with Kyrgyzstan, but have just two 1-0 wins to show for it.
The main culprit is Hwang Ui-jo, who despite scoring the goal that downed the Philippines, has taken nine more shots than any other player in the Korean squad (13).
Meanwhile, Son has just put the finishing touches on a run with Tottenham that has seen him rack up nine goals in his last dozen games.
Bento, however, insisted he is controlling the urge to expect too much from Son too soon, given his first full training session only game on the eve of this match.
“He had a second training session with the team later (on Tuesday) and we will see how he fares before deciding,” said Bento, who may be without key winger Lee Jae-sung for the round of 16 due to a foot injury. “For that matter, any changes that we make to the team will not be because we are resting players but it will be for our strategy.
“Of course we know how many matches he has played the last (few) months. We also know that he is a very important player for our team.”
So if South Korea deliver another uninspiring display in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday without Son, just remember that arguably the tournament’s best player will be waiting in the wings.
Hurt under the collar
The pictures circulating in the Chinese media after victory over Kyrgyzstan did not look pretty for Wu Lei. His collarbone was in a position that you wouldn’t describe as natural, but last year’s Chinese Super League top goal-scorer has proceeded to grit his teeth and get on with it.
That pluck showed up in the subsequent fixture with the Philippines, providing two delicious strikes in the 3-0 win.
Marcello Lippi will rest his star forward and it shouldn’t be a huge blow – whoever loses faces a beatable Thailand – but unfortunately no amount of time is likely to fully heal the 27-year-old.
Shanghai newspaper Jiefang Daily has reported that surgery will ultimately be required but, as for the Asian Cup, Lippi is planning on his star forward being around for the duration.
“I saw the news that Wu Lei was to have surgery in China, but the truth is he will stay with us and he can play in our next games,” said the legendary former Juventus and Italy coach. “Our medical team have good communication with the medical team of (Wu’s club) Shanghai SIPG, and we know that Wu is getting better.
“We already know that if we finish second, we will play Thailand. If we win the group, we have to wait to see who our opponents will be. It doesn’t matter to us as whoever we face will probably be of the same standard as Thailand.”
Much like Son and South Korea, China’s hopes rest on the injured collarbone of a man who has scored seven goals in his last 13 internationals. We may see what they lack without him.