Substitute Ahmed Khalil was the saviour from the penalty spot, once again, for hosts the UAE when his 102nd-minute effort earned a tense 3-2 round-of-16 win against Asian Cup debutants Kyrgyzstan, who struck the woodwork three times.
Khamis Esmail headed the Whites in front early on from a corner at a chilly Zayed Sports City. But Mirlan Murzaev soon profited from poor tracking by the same player and slotted home.
Wasteful Ali Mabkhout then converted a one-on-one past the hour mark. But a late twist came in the 92nd minute through substitute Tursunali Rustamov’s header from a corner.
Just before the break in extra time, Mabkhout was pulled down by Bekzhan Sagynbaev. Just like the opening 1-1 draw with Bahrain, Khalil, critically, did the business from 12 yards.
This did not stop hearts being in mouths when Rustamov smashed a shot onto the crossbar past 120 minutes.
Holders Australia now await in Friday’s last-eight tie.
Khalil’s routine rescue act: Whites head coach Alberto Zaccheroni has much to thank 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil for.
Middling displays against Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan have been salvaged by the 27-year-old from 12 yards.
But the spirit on show to get them out of that situation will provide some comfort ahead of meeting the Socceroos.
Shaping up: On paper, Kyrgyzstan’s 3-5-1-1 formation appeared too deferential.
But its utilisation was not conservative. Captain Valery Kichin was arguably their most-adventurous player from third centre-back/right wing-back.
Defensive worries: It’s alarming for the UAE that a greater number of defensive players didn’t equate to solidarity.
A failure to track in the 1-1 Group A draw with Thailand was repeated on Monday night. Similarly, Bahrain’s chaotic goal in the opener – also a 1-1 draw – from a cross bore hallmarks of Kyrgyzstan’s leveller at 2-2.
Frustrations and regrets: Small details cost Kyrgyzstan the most-famous football result in their 27-year history.
Sagynbaev’s tug was unnecessary, while hitting the woodwork so often ladles on more frustration. It condemned this impressive team made from domestic and naturalised players.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
No dropping anchors
Kyrgyzstan have never played in an Asian Cup before and are ranked 91st by FIFA, 12 places below the UAE.
If you looked at Zaccheroni’s team sheet, however, you’d have thought the Whites were playing tournament favourites Iran or South Korea.
A trio of defensive midfielders – Esmail, Ali Salmeen and Amer Abdulrahman – clogged up play in a narrow 4-3-2-1. Winger Ismail Al Hammadi was thrown on in the 62nd minute and then the second swiftly followed.
14th min GOAL: Matar swings in a corner. Khalifa Mubarak rises highest and flicks it onto Esmail to head home.
26th min GOAL: From hero to zero. Esmail doesn’t track the runner, allowing Murzaev to round Essa and slide in on the angle.
46th min CHANCE: Al Ahbabi overlaps and sends in a beautiful cross. Mabkhout then somehow heads wide from four yards.
52nd min WOODWORK: An over-hit cross from skipper Kichin rattles the crossbar.
64th min GOAL: Amer Abdulrahman picks out Mabkhout, played onside by Mustafa Iusupov who’s been outmuscled by Al Hammadi. He then tucks his finish inside the far post.
90’+2 min GOAL: ZSC is stunned into silence as Anton Zemlianukhin swings in a corner that fellow substitute Rustamov heads home, via Mohamed Ahmed.
102nd min GOAL: Mabkhout is bundled over by Sagynbaev. Khalil’s powerful effort skims in via goalkeeper Kutman Kadyrbekov’s ankles. Relief.
106th min WOODWORK: UAE fail to deal with a long throw-in and Bakhtiyar Duyshobekov heads onto the far post.
120’+1 min WOODWORK: Rustamov steadies himself inside the box, but fires a rocket onto the crossbar.
The sense of a team playing well below its collective potential remains. Better will be required in the remainder of their knockout run.
Australia will not be scared.
Kyrgyzstan gave it their all at ZSC and, eventually, came up short against a stronger opponent.
A first Asian Cup experience ending in the knockouts is an achievement to cherish and build on.
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