Two goals each from Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout helped United Arab Emirates thrash Qatar 4-1 in their opening match of the 2015 Asian Cup in Canberra on Sunday afternoon.
Despite falling behind to an exquisite Khalfan Ibrahim lob midway through the first half, Khalil scored either side of the break and Ali Mabkhout added a further two to give Mahdi Ali's men a vital three points in the first clash in Group D.
Mabkhout and his men should not expect all their Asian Cup opponents to be as generous as the disappointing Qataris, however.
Coming into the tournament on an 11-match unbeaten run, Djamel Belmadi's team took the lead but then struggled to cope with the dynamic movement of UAE's front four with Omar Abdulrahman growing increasingly influential as the game progressed.
UAE started strongly with their number ten and star playmaker calming concerns over his fitness by clashing with opposite number Ibrahim seconds after kick-off and then firing a right-sided free kick towards the far top corner shortly after.
Before the game, UAE coach Mahdi Ali had talked of the importance of taking chances and was fuming as his point was soon proved by the Maroons midway through the first half. Hasan Al Haydos lifted the ball over the UAE defence, Mohammed Muntari's shot was blocked by Majed Naser but, standing just inside the area, Khalfan coolly chested the ball down and then beautifully lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Ali would at least have been happier with his side's determination to get back into the game and the men in white almost produced a rapid equaliser but Qasem got down quickly to push a firm downward header from Khalil around the post.
Then it all went wrong for the goalkeeper and his team. The leveler, nine minutes before the break, was a painful one for the 2014 Gulf Cup champions. Qasem spilled a cross, before the ball was launched back into the area by Abdelaziz Sanqoor for Ahmed Khalil. His header was cleared off the line by Ibrahim Majed straight onto the chest of the number 11 which inadvertently did the rest and found the empty net.
UAE, roared on by a small but loud contigent of fans in an attendance of over five thousand, continued to look dangerous and Khalil should have done better from a smart Omar pass just before the break. Khalil didn’t take long to redeem himself and five minutes later the forward curled a free-kick from outside the left side of the area past the hapless Qasem.
Worse was to come for the 2022 World Cup hosts just three minutes later from another free-kick. This time the goalkeeper parried a fierce shot from Khamis Esmaeel into the path of the in-form Mabkhout who finished from close range.
The same striker added a fourth late in the game to put UAE within sight of the knockout stage of the Asian Cup with Bahrain up next for Ali and his men. Meanwhile, Qatar travel to Sydney to take on Group D’s pre-tournament favourites Iran.
CANBERRA, Australia — For a few years now, there has been talk in the United Arab Emirates, and whispers throughout the rest of Asia, that the national team has a bunch of players worth talking about.
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Ahead of their opening game of the 2015 Asian Cup against Qatar in Canberra on Sunday, national team coach Ali Mahdi challenged his stars to prove their worth after billing them as part of the best squad that the country has ever sent to the continental tournament.
Speaking on Saturday morning, at a wet Canberra Stadium, Ali called upon the likes of Omar Abdulrahman, one of the most highly-rated midfielders in Asia, and Ali Mabkhout, the top scorer at the recent Gulf Cup, to shine on the continent’s biggest stage.
“We have invested in these players for a long time for such a competition,” Ali, sporting a red cap and a smile as he happily answered all questions, told a press conference. “We are in a good condition and have been for two or three years. In my opinion, this is the best squad that the UAE can select at this moment and the best squad that the UAE has sent to this competition.”
“We announced two years ago that we wanted to reach the semi-finals of the competition. So let’s aim for that, try to reach it, and then see from there what we can do.”
Some, if not all, questions will be answered against Qatar, another Middle Eastern team that has, if everything goes well, the potential to impress in Australia.
For UAE, the key player is likely to be Mabkhout. The Al Jazira man is in excellent form for his country and finished the Gulf Cup as top scorer. The 25 year-old is looking forward to teaming up once again with Abdulrahman, the Al Ain playmaker and one of Asia’s hottest properties.
“All the team has a good relationship but with Omar, we are like brothers,” the 25 year-old said. “I hope that this will help us in this game and in future games also. We know Qatar well and we are ready.”
The coach believes that the striker has what it takes to play in the big leagues.
“We have many talented players that they deserve to play in Europe and I will happy to see them playing there. It will give them more experience, better experience and help them as they play for the country.”
Just arrived in Canberra.UAE coach Mahdi Ali is talking of reaching Asian Cup semis. 1st-fascinating clash with Qatar
— John Duerden (@JohnnyDuerden) January 10, 2015
Ali gave his squad a clean bill of health as they seek to recover their tournament pride following November’s Gulf Cup semi-final exit to Saudi Arabia, who went on to lose to Qatar in the final.
After Qatar, UAE must take on Bahrain and Iran in a group that looks wide open. Finishing in top spot would also be welcome given the fact that defending champions Japan are likely to be lying in wait for Group C’s second-placed team.
First though, comes an in-form Qatar, unbeaten in 11 games. That run has seen Djamel Belmadi lead the Maroons to the Gulf Cup title and the coach – delighted with the team’s form – is happy to welcome his star player Khalfan Ibrahim, who missed November’s triumph through injury, back into the team.
“He is a key player, a major player of our team,” said the Algerian, appointed last February. “We missed his talent at the Gulf Cup. He’s happy to join the team especially and we are happy to have him back. [He can be a star of the tournament] in the right condition after coming back from injuries. I hope he can reach his potential.”
Belmadi also praised his opposite number.
“Mahdi Ali has been working with the UAE team for a long time, he won the 2013 Gulf Cup and helped the side qualify for the 2012 Olympics, he is doing an amazing job with their team and he has done a massive job for his country.”
That may have been music to Ali’s ears as he refuted suggestions that he was under pressure going into this tournament.
“’It is not pressure, pressure is part of this game and we are used to it. Before I was coach for the UAE, I was a citizen of the country and this is my country and all my wishes and effort is towards achieving that. We will do our best to represent our country in this big event to reflect all the changes and the improvement that have happened in the UAE and sport is one of these areas.”
His team will get a chance to prove that on Sunday. After three 1-0 results on Saturday, the continent will be looking to UAE to inject some flair into the 2015 Asian Cup.
LIKELY UAE XI: (4-2-3-1) Majed Nasser; Walid Abbas, Mohamed Ahmed, Mohamed Salem, Abdulaziz Sanquor, Habib Fardan, Amer Abdulrahman, Omar Abdulrahman, Ismail Al Hammadi, Ali Mabkhout, Ahmed Khalil
LIKELY QATAR XI: (4-2-3-1) Qasim Burhan, Mohammed Musa, Ibrahim Majid, Bilal Mohammed, Abdelkarim Hassan, Karim Boudiaf, Ahmed Abdul Maqsoud, Hassan Al Haidos, Khalfan Ibrahim, Ismaeel Mohammad, Mohammed Muntari
Uzbekistan beat North Korea 1-0 in the Asian Cup Group B opener in Sydney on Saturday (10th January).
China scored an upset as they beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Group B of the Asian Cup in Brisbane.