A home nation has started to believe.
Hosts the UAE stunned holders Australia after Ali Mabkhout gratefully accepted a gift from Milos Degenek, sending the former through to Asian Cup 2019’s semi-finals with a surprise 1-0 victory.
Buoyed by a cauldron atmosphere at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the Socceroos dominated possession and attempts on goal against the side they defeated in 2015’s last-four.
But their inaccuracy at both ends on Friday night proved critical when Al Hilal new boy Degenek’s shocking back pass under pressure from substitute Mohamed Abdulrahman allowed the previous edition’s top scorer, Mabkhout, to round goalkeeper Mathew Ryan and slot into an open goal on 68 minutes.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s Whites then defiantly held out, even after 10 minutes of added time. Here is the state of play ahead of their meeting with Qatar on Tuesday at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium:
HOW THEY’VE GOT HERE
Zaccheroni’s pedigree as a Serie A winner with AC Milan in 1998/99 and, more pertinently, an Asian Cup champion with Japan eight years ago saw him selected in October 2017 as the man to lead the Whites out from the ashes of their failed World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
Results, however, were not promising from the off.
These included an opening 1-0 friendly loss to Haiti and controversial penalty shootout reversal to Oman in last January’s Gulf Cup showpiece, that was presaged by star duo Omar Abdulrahman and Mabkhout breaking curfew. A 2-0 defeat in their final Asian Cup tune-up against Kuwait ensured they came in with a record of just six wins from 18 matches under him, with a paltry 10 goals scored.
In the competition itself, the Whites required an 88th-minute penalty in the opener to draw 1-1 with Bahrain, plus were outplayed for long spells by India in a 2-0 win and Thailand in a 1-1 draw. Their tally of five points was enough to top Group A, but would have only been good enough for third in every other one.
Competition debutants Kyrgyzstan then pushed them into extra time, prior to Ahmed Khalil’s second clincher from the spot.
Against the Socceroos, depleted by playmaker Tom Rogic’s suspension, they ceded 64 per cent of possession and allowed 22 attempts on goal. But Degenek erred and Mabkhout pounced.
WAS IT LUCKY, THEN?
The statistics say ‘yes’, but reality was somewhat different.
Zaccheroni’s five changes and switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation included the injection of energy from outstanding centre midfielder Majed Hassan.
With the adventurous Bandar Al Ahbabi pushed up to right wing, plus centre-backs Ismail Ahmed and – concussion aside – Fares Juma in redoubtable mood, the UAE ceded few chances of note.
Australia’s tally of two accurate attempts from 22 shows how the UAE restricted them, largely, to pot shots. When forward Apostolos Giannou found goalkeeper Khalid Essa’s bottom corner past the hour mark, substitute Mathew Leckie was rightly adjudged to have been offside in the build-up.
A siege was expected after Mabkhout’s astute finish – a goal that made him the Asian Cup’s joint-third overall highest scorer with nine goals from 11 appearances. But the UAE held them off with relative ease, knocking out the holders in the quarters for the second-successive running after Japan in 2015.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The UAE’s two clean sheets in 2019 is as many as they have had in their previous four tournaments combined.
Defence is the foundation Zaccheroni must build up from. Especially with superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman out of the competition through injury and restricted to being a cheerleader from the stands.
If Juma and fellow injury victim Mohamed Ahmed do not recover for the Qatar clash, the poise of 20-year-old utility defender Khalifa Al Hammadi was staggering as an early substitute against the Socceroos.
At the other end of the age scale, veteran Walid Abbas let nobody down at left-back during his first minutes of the tournament.
An intriguing tactical clash awaits against Qatar, who have outscored the UAE by 12-8 in the last three weeks.
Both undefeated sides love to pounce on the counter. Both pulled off upsets in the last eight – Son Heung-min’s South Korea fell to Al Annabi.
Something will have to give at MBZ.
Friday’s memorable 1-0 victory against champions Australia propelled hosts the UAE into Asian Cup 2019’s semi-finals.
The Whites came into the tournament under a cloud, thanks to middling friendly results. They have, however, confounded expectations to repeat 2015’s run to the last-four.
Here are the top-five standout players that have driven them to this stage:
Club: Al Jazira
Mabkhout is, almost, without compare in Asia. The 2015 edition’s top scorer has shown no drop off. He guaranteed a 2-0 win versus India, earned a 1-1 draw with Thailand, scored and then won a penalty in the round of 16 against Kyrgyzstan and profited from Australia’s error in the quarters.
Club: Al Ain
The 35-year-old came into the 2019 event under an injury cloud, plus performed shakily upon his first outing against India in the second group game. Since the ring rust has been dusted off, however, he’s been characteristically dominant. Against Australia, in particular, an ability to repel high balls was critical to the eventual 1-0 victory.
Position: Centre midfield
Club: Al Wasl
Salmeen keeps it simple. His squat physique, eye for danger and swift passing marks him out as an Emirati Claude Makelele. Against Australia, he made the most passes (40) and accurate passes (29) among UAE players. His 13 duels was level best with his team-mates. This represented a fine recovery after he disappointed versus Kyrgyzstan.
BANDAR AL AHBABI
Position: Right winger/full-back
Club: Al Ain
Al Ahbabi is never happier than with the ball at his feet. Either at right-back or right wing, he’s the UAE’s most-direct threat. His energy helped subdue Thailand’s key man, Chanathip Songkrasin, in the group stage. It also ensured Australia’s Robbie Kruse could not just concentrate on his offensive duties.
Club: Al Ain
It has been a golden few months in the career of Essa. The 29-year-old was superb throughout last month’s Club World Cup, continuing this form in the Asian Cup. A firm stop from Apostolos Giannou kept the UAE in it against Australia, while he repelled everything India threw his way in a bright opening.
Hosts the UAE exhibited a “champion’s character” to eliminate holders Australia and march into Asian Cup 2019’s semi-finals, according to coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
The dogged Whites ceded possession and chances to exalted opponents who beat them in 2015’s last-four. But encouraged by partisan support at a raucous Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, a suicidal back pass from Al Hilal-bound centre-back Milos Degenek was intercepted by Al Jazira predator Ali Mabkhout and he rolled into an open net – to become the competition’s joint-third all-time top scorer on nine strikes from 11 appearances – after goalkeeper Mathew Ryan was confidently rounded on 68 minutes.
This moment, allied with indomitable defending throughout from the likes of veteran Ismail Ahmed, saw a meeting secured against Qatar on Tuesday at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
“It is a deserved victory over a champion in Australia,” said Zaccheroni, who remains on course to achieve a repeat of 1996’s run to the decider during the last time the Emirates put on the event.
“As I mentioned earlier in the pre-match press conference, Australia is very strong and organised. They play very well tactically, they are stable with their formation and the players they keep in the squad.
“Since I assumed responsibilities, I changed the squad many times because of injuries. Today, the UAE showed their great character – a champion’s character.
“We defended well and attacked well. We were suffering from aerial balls, but we fought well and won the match.
“We don’t have to forget that we suffered emergency changes to two players, because of injury.”
The Whites came into the tournament under a cloud. A final friendly loss to Kuwait made it just six victories in 18 matches under Zaccheroni.
Against Graham Arnold’s remodelled Australia, they gained only 36-per-cent possession and had seven attempts to their opponents’ 22.
But it would be incorrect to tag this victory as lucky. They defended courageously and ruthlessly converted their best opportunity.
Where to begin? 🇦🇪— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) January 25, 2019
Wayward & homeward bound 🇦🇺
All change 🔁
Here's my report card after the dogged #UAE made the most of some suspect #GoSocceroos play, at both ends, to make #AsianCup2019's last-four.https://t.co/nCIm7AlMJC pic.twitter.com/lnpJcfEarh
The weekend’s result saw the UAE eliminate the champions at the quarters for the second-successive tournament. Japan were their victims, under Mahdi Ali, in 2015 at Stadium Australia.
Mabkhout was also on the score sheet that night.
The 28-year-old’s latest effort also moved him onto an impressive 48 goals in 78 internationals, of which four have come in five matches during this edition.
His exploits earned special praise from Zaccheroni.
He said: “Everyone agrees that Mabkhout is a high-calibre striker and big player, his performance tonight was great.
“You know, we rely on the collective performance and his goal was critical. It turned the whole match.”
This victory, however, came at a cost. Al Ain right-back was stretchered off in the early stages with an apparent serious knee injury, Al Jazira centre-back Fares Juma had to have repeat treatment for concussion in the stretched final throes and buccaneering right winger Bandar Al Ahbabi further suffered a muscle problem.
“I do not have any updated information about the injured players, due to the short time we’ve had,” said Zaccheroni, who previously lost Al Nasr centre-back Khalifa Mubarak to injury against Kyrgyzstan in the round of 16 and has been without superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman – who watched on in the Garden City – for the entire running.
“After the press conference, we’ll contact the doctor of the national team and we’ll assess the injured players – Bandar Al Ahbabi, Mohamed Ahmed and Fares Juma.
“I hope they don’t have serious injuries.”