Just one more hurdle stands between the UAE and emulating the heroes of 1996 – beat Qatar on Tuesday and they will surpass the exploits of the 2015 team and reach just a second-ever Asian Cup final.
Four years ago, the Whites were wonderful as they reached the last four in Australia. They shocked Asian giants Japan in the quarter-finals before falling to South Korea, although they ended their campaign on a high when they beat Iraq to finish third.
Four years on and they are in the semi-finals again, even if their football has not been as fluid as 2015. Japan await the winners of this one in Friday’s final.
Here are the main talking points:
ZACC’S TACT COULD BE BEST FORM OF ATTACK
UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni has been questioned for a dated and cautious approach during his UAE tenure – with justification, it has to be said.
The UAE have too often toiled against weaker opponents or failed to challenge the more elite sides.
Yet, here they are, in the last four of the Asian Cup, on home soil. The ghost of 1996 is calling – their best effort at this tournament was in their own backyard 23 years ago when they were beaten, agonisingly via penalties, by neighbours Saudi Arabia.
Say what you will about Zaccheroni’s approach. It has delivered the Whites to the semi-finals. And this might be the time when he is actually the perfect tactician to deliver the host nation into the final.
Flair and free-flowing football is how every team wants to play. But at the business end of the competition, where the margin for error is slimmer than ever, it’s the fine margins that win games.
Just look at Qatar, who possess the competition’s top scorer in seven-goal Almoez Ali, yet have won their two knockout games 1-0.
Experience, patience and good old Italian defensive shape could be deciding factors in Abu Dhabi. Zaccheroni could just be the perfect man for the job.
MABKHOUT A DIFFERENCE-MAKER
It’s been fascinating for UAE fans to see Ali Mabkhout continually lighting up this tournament.
Four years ago in Australia he stormed to the top of the scoring charts with a tournament-leading five goals as the team played frighteningly good football under Mahdi Ali.
A tournament on, they might not be as easy on the eye, but Mabkhout is even more lethal. Omar Abdulrahman might attract more headlines, but the Al Jazira striker is a genuinely world-class finisher. That has never been in doubt but during the course of the last month, his all-round game has caught the eye.
Asked to hit the channels within Zaccheroni’s cautious system, he’s dragged defenders out of position and worked tirelessly for his country’s cause. His underrated strength and hold-up play has really come to the fore too.
Oh, and he’s scored four goals to boot, one fewer than his 2015 tally to lie joint-second.
He is a true predator, able to pounce at any second. A truly terrifying prospect for any opposing team.
A CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
At the opposite end of the field is the tournament’s leading scorer, Ali, who has seven goals, three more than Mabkhout, Iran’s Sardar Azmoun and Uzbekistan tyro Eldor Shomurodov.
The UAE though can take comfort from the fact the 22-year-old Al Duhail frontman has been kept off the scoresheet in his previous two games.
Scoring four in the 6-0 win over North Korea in the group phase is one thing, it’s another thing entirely to replicate that when it matters, at the business end of the tournament.
Bassam Al Rawi and Abdulaziz Hatem have shouldered the goalscoring weight in round of 16 and quarter-final victories over Iraq and South Korea respectively, so there is plenty of hope that the UAE can keep the youngster in check too.
Zaccheroni’s defence has grown into the tournament, with veteran Ismail Ahmed in-particular looking commanding as they snuck past champions Australia in the last eight.
This despite seeing another instrumental performer Khalifa Mubarak hobble off against Kyrgyzstan. Versatile Al Ain man Bandar Al Ahbabi has been excellent in his converted full-back/wing-back role, while Boss colleague Khalid Essa has been imperious between the sticks.
A stern test awaits but this UAE side is made of tough stuff.
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