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.
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