UAE icon Ismail Matar insists winning is more important than playing well after the Whites reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup on home soil.
Pretty football has not been a trait of the UAE’s style of play in the Alberto Zaccheroni era – a far cry from the exhilarating football the nation played on their way to third place at the tournament four years ago in Australia.
Ali Mabkhout finished as the Asian Cup’s top scorer in 2015 as the Whites upset record four-time champions Japan to finish third.
But the hosts have flattered to deceive under the dour tactics of the Italian veteran, stumbling into the last eight with draws in the group stage against Thailand and Bahrain, while they needed extra-time to beat Asian Cup debutants Kyrgyzstan 3-2 on Monday.
But Al Wahda warhorse Matar – who is the UAE’s second most capped player behind Adnan Al Talyani following 129 appearances – would rather his team still be in the tournament playing poorly than losing playing well.
“Today was like this is one game, you want to play well or you want to win. We want to win,” said the 35-year-old forward after Ahmed Khalil’s extra-time penalty earned the Whites victory.
“We don’t want to play well today. Playing well didn’t help Saudi Arabia (the Green Falcons exited on Monday after a 1-0 defeat to Japan). They played a really good game and at the end of the day, Japan won.
“Sometimes in this kind of game you look always for winning. You don’t look for a great game. The big lesson for us was Japan against Saudi Arabia. Japan are the better team, but they respect Saudi Arabia, they had the possession more, we saw them all in the defence.
“When you want to win a title you have to do whatever makes you win.
“Always when you try to protect the result there is pressure. We are the team that don’t give a good impression the last three games. People are expecting more form us, and we don’t really play that well.”
Matar, who made his senior Whites debut 16 years ago after starring for the under-20s at the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup – where he was named Player of the Tournament – added that facing a smaller, unknown nation in the round of 16 also prevented the UAE from playing with flair.
“This is football. When you play a 50-50 game, like we see today between Japan and Saudi Arabia, you can show your quality, you can show your personality more, because it’s a 50-50 game,” said the veteran, who has spent his whole club career with the Clarets, save for a loan period at Qatar’s Al Sadd in 2009.
“When you have the pressure on you and you have to go an attack and score and have to win, it’s always pressure. Sometimes you don’t know how to play.
“And it depends on the other team, who can make it tough for you. And the Kyrgyzstan team are really, really good. They have quality. It was not an easy task. But like I told you, a 50-50 game I think we will be better.”
Matar impressed in the win, his first start of the tournament after two previous appearances off the bench against Thailand and India. Zaccheroni’s side led 1-0 and 2-1 through Khamis Esmail and Mabkhout goals before Mirlan Murzaev and Tursunali Rustamov forced extra-time.
And even though his lack of game time left him fearful, Matar said he drew on his vast experience.
He added: “To be honest I was scared for a long, long time, like one month and something, I’m not playing and the last two games I played only 10 minutes, 10 minutes and now I have to start. But when you’ve got experience you have to use it.”
Tottenham star Son Heung-min does not feel he’s being unfairly targeted after the South Korea skipper helped steer his side into the Asian Cup quarter-finals following a hard-fought 2-1 win over Bahrain on Tuesday.
The 26-year-old darling of his nation spoke to reporters after the match with a visible bruise on his left ear after he received a boot to the head in a physical encounter.
He was also subjected to rough treatment during his bow at the tournament as he provided two assists in the 2-0 victory over China last Wednesday as Korea finished top of Group C.
But Son played down suggestions that opposition players were targeting him – despite a diminished impact as the Taegeuk Warriors secured their passage into the last eight, where they play Qatar on Friday.
“No, never in football, it’s not about being targeted,” said the Spurs schemer after Korea’s 2-1 extra-time victory.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to play with a team who have 10 players in defence and you can’t find the space. I’m not worried about this. I have to learn from this and we should play better than this game.”
Son, who has been in sublime form for Spurs this season, forming a fearsome foursome in attack with Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli – he has scored 12 goals in 28 appearances in all competitions – has also had to adapt quickly to conditions in the UAE.
He only flew out following Spurs’ 1-0 Premier League defeat to Manchester United at Wembley 10 days ago.
“You know, it’s about the mentality. I’m tired of course after the game, but I’ll try to recover as quick as possible and play again,” he said when asked about the possibility of playing potentially three more games of 120 minutes if Korea make it to the Asian Cup final and have to go the distance each time.
“I can recover. It’s the same when I’m at Tottenham, I have to recover as quick as possible and look forward to playing.”
Korea advanced to the last eight following a gritty win in which goals from Hamburg’s Hwang Hee-chan and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors left-back Kim Jin-su earned Paulo Bento’s side victory.
1996 ✅— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) 22 January 2019
Korea Republic have progressed to the quarter final stages of the #AsianCup in each of their last 7⃣ appearances at the competition. Streak. pic.twitter.com/6EkkjhsiBs
Son added: “It was a tough game. We played against a team who had so many players in defence and then played on the counter so it’s not easy. It wasn’t a great performance and we’re better than that.”
Some of Asia’s heavyweights remain in the competition, including record four-time winners Japan, the continent’s highest ranked team in FIFA, Iran, as well as reigning champions Australia, who Son and Co could come up against in the last four if both sides win their quarter-finals.
And Son feels Korea can reach the final, although he is not looking beyond Friday’s clash in Abu Dhabi.
“Why not,” he said. “We’re looking forward to playing a quarter-final which is going to be a very tough game like today, so we’re looking forward. We got the result. The performance was not great but sometimes you take the result.
“We don’t focus on other teams. We are happy because we are doing well and we focus on us because that is most important.”
Son also touched on Korea’s tribute to Newcastle United midfielder Ki Sung-yueng, who had to return to England from the Emirates after picking up an injury. Team-mates held his No16 shirt aloft as they paraded around the Rashid Stadium pitch following full time in Dubai on Tuesday.
And Son added: “He’s a big miss. He’s one of the best players in the squad and of course we’re going to miss him. Someone else has to be ready to bounce up and has to show what they can do if they play.”
The Taegeuk Warriors earned a battling 2-1 win over Bahrain to move into the Asian Cup quarter-finals, with Kim Jin-su the hero in extra-time.
Rather than their skipper and Spurs star Son Heung-min leading them to victory though, this win was more of a team effort with a number of the South Korea support cast stepping up to the stage.
Kim grabbed the winner but Hwang Hee-chan, who put them ahead, also shone, as did rising national team star Hwang In-beom. But it was right-back Lee Yong who played a bigger role than anyone, laying on the assist for Kim’s winner as well as setting up the opening goal.
The Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors man was the catalyst for both Korea goals as he motored up and down the right flank all night.
Bahrain had defended stoutly up until the 43rd minute before Hwang swept home after good work down the right from Yong.
Son also played a starring role in the opener, spraying a delightful pass out to Yong whose delivery into the box caused chaos and yielded the opener, Hwang tapping in after Sayed Shubbar could only parry Yong’s fizzed low ball in.
Bahrain levelled 13 minutes from time when Mohamed Al Romaihi also profited from a rebound to make it 1-1 and send the game to an additional 30 minutes. The winner came down the right again and from a Yong delivery as Kim’s delicious diving header deservedly won it.
Here we take a closer look at the performance of the rampaging right-back.
Got right – Relentless
As is the modern game, full-backs are not only supposed to defend, and from the off Yong was flying up the right flank to try and get involved with the attacks. He was always an outlet for Kim Min-jae at right centre-half and swung in a couple of dangerous crosses before his arrow of ball into the box created havoc for the Bahrain defence and allowed Hwang to break the deadlock.
The fact that a 30-year-old was still sprinting up and down the touchline after 120 minutes was immense and he still had the power and vision to thump a long ball to the back post on the cusp of half-time in extra-time where Kim put Korea in control once more.
Got wrong – Lapses in concentration
For all the innovation in full-back play in recent years, they still have to defend and Bahrain got a lot of joy down Korea’s right-hand channel in the second half.
After failing to kill Bahrain off early in the second period when a flurry of chances were missed, Miroslav Soukup’s men regrouped and rediscovered their attacking rhythm.
The equaliser came down Yong’s side of the pitch, with the Korean defence failing to clear the ball on three occasions. Only Hong Chul (28) lost the ball more times than Yong (22) during the game.
Nice for Korea fans to know that even with star man Son not at his most influential, he has able assistance, with Yong’s 86.3 per cent pass accuracy easily outshining his skipper. With the right-back’s dangerous crosses and relentless energy, he is yet another weapon in the Taegeuk Warriors’ arsenal.