Striker Ahmed Khalil’s love affair with the UAE continued after he rose from the substitutes’ bench to save the struggling hosts from a devastating opening loss to Bahrain on Sunday night when the 2019 Asian Cup kicked off.
The 2015 AFC Player of the Year watched from the sidelines when Mohamed Al Romaihi converted his own rebound to give the unfancied visitors to Zayed Sports City a 78th-minute lead.
In response, Khalil was granted a 100th international cap and he duly delivered from the penalty spot to earn a 1-1 draw.
Here’s a review of our opening Hero of the Day:
The UAE limped into this competition after a distressing run of results under embattled coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
This gloom increased when Whites winger Ismail Al Hammadi and striker Ali Mabkhout missed glaring chances, prior to Al Romaihi’s shock strike against – supposedly – limited opponents.
Panic station. In such moments, trusted players are required.
Khalil’s recent club seasons have been ravaged by bad form and niggling injury. But his wealth of experience and eye for goal ensured he was the go-to option when a perplexing handball was given against fellow replacement Mohamed Marhoon.
Keeping his cool: Zaccheroni had a key decision to make when he looked backwards at his bench.
Ismail Matar and Khalil have, already, long written their names into Whites lore. For differing reason, age and injury, neither man was able to start.
But the Italian can count himself lucky to be able to draw on such stellar names.
Khalil has only scored five times in 19 Arabian Gulf League games since the start of 2017/18. Yet, his composure and killer instinct would not betray him – or his nation.
Starts are in short supply: Khalil’s career is already a fine one, no matter his heroics on Saturday night.
There will, however, always be an air of frustration about a performer who so regularly struggles to display optimum fitness.
On ability alone, Khalil’s spot in the starting XI should be assured. But in truth, this only really occurred during World Cup 2018 qualifying when he was the global joint-top scorer.
Getting in the right shape, and frame of mind, is the next objective for the 27-year-old. Only then can he build on this starting point.
Khalil can reflect warmly on his night’s work – no matter how short it was.
He was only thrown on in the 81st minute, with the leveller coming before normal time was up.
Throughout football’s history, the 12-yard distance between penalty post and goalkeeper has appeared ominously large. Khalil’s composure, at a time of dire need, was laudable.
This is especially the case when his bitty build-up is taken into account.
A change of shape from Zaccheroni will be required to get him back in the XI – his days on the wing are gone.
But a ‘super-sub’ role is of immense value. Especially when the UAE are this poor.
UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni was hopeful that history will repeat itself for the 2019 Asian Cup after host nation UAE played out a poor 1-1 draw with Bahrain.
The Whites’ worrisome build-up was reflected at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City – attendance was far from a sell-out at 33,878 – and they appeared on course for a chastening loss in Group A when replacement striker Mohamed Al Romaihi lashed in at the second attempt on 78 minutes. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club striker Ahmed Khalil, however, was called from the substitutes’ bench and he delivered on 88 minutes, thanks to a fortuitously awarded penalty kick.
Back in 2011 when Zaccheroni was in charge of Japan, they recovered from a limp 1-1 opening draw against Jordan to claim the competition. This triumph played on the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan tactician’s mind on Saturday.
He said: “When I was in charge of Japan, we ended with a draw in the first game of the 2011 Asian Cup against Jordan, then we won the tournament.
“The same scenario played out today, as we went behind.
“What is very important for me, is not only performances. The performance in the first half was aggressive and I thank them for fighting in the game.
“I told them what matters is to evolve gradually, from one game to the next.
“We will correct all the mistakes and look at the mistakes we made and learn lessons from them in the next game against India. Hopefully, the performances will get better and better.
“The team is different, with different potential and a style also. The UAE is prepared to face any qualified team in the Asian Cup.
“We will analyse and evaluate the performance of the players.
“When we will watch the game away, we will try to correct the mistakes they made.”
The UAE will need to build on this rescue act on Thursday against India at the same venue.
Unfancied opponents Bahrain had come agonisingly close to a memorable result.
But head coach Miroslav Soukup declined to describe the stalemate as a “hard luck story”.
He said: “Of course, we are happy because it was an open game. If someone told us before the game we’d play a draw, we’d be satisfied.
“Some people may think hard luck. But it was not – the UAE are a strong team, especially in the first half.
“Maybe the players were a little under pressure. Many spectators, nice atmosphere.
“This is not a hard luck story. The UAE had many chances in the first half.
“From our side, in the second half our performance went up. Now in front of us, is two more difficult games.
“We hope that the first pressure is behind us. Now, our results and performances will be much better.”
Bahrain next meet up-and-coming Thailand on January 10 at Dubai’s revamped Al Maktoum Stadium.
Substitute Ahmed Khalil, on his 100th cap, netted an 88th-minute penalty kick to save hosts UAE from a losing start to the 2019 Asian Cup against Bahrain.
After a first half of very few chances on Sunday at Zayed Sports City, stand-in striker Mohamed Al Romaihi lashed in at the second attempt on 78 minutes. A shameful Group A- opening appeared to be on, before replacement Mohamed Marhoon’s handball was harshly punished and Khalil did the rest to earn an unsettling 1-1 draw.
Here are the ratings:
Khalid Essa – 6: Surprisingly spilled a second-half shot, but reacted superbly to keep it out. Didn’t have a great deal else to do in Abu Dhabi.
Bandar Al Ahbabi – 6: The usual energy was not apparent at Zayed Sports City from the Al Ain rocket. Was the reason tactical or personal?
Khalifa Mubarak – 7: One of few Whites stars to escape from this with reputation enhanced. Really unlucky not to keep out Al Romaihi’s goal.
Fares Juma – 5: The skipper of the UAE was nowhere to be seen when Al Romaihi had two attempts to put Bahrain ahead after interval.
Al Hassan Saleh – 5: The Sharjah left-back is an average-to-good Arabian Gulf League left-back. Why didn’t Walid Abbas start the game?
Ismail Al Hammadi – 5: Missed a glorious opportunity in the sixth minute. Influence of the experienced winger waned from that moment.
Ali Salmeen – 5: The Al Wasl midfield battler simply wasn’t required. Some imagination and drive was needed in preference.
Amer Abdulrahman – 5: His passing needed to be at his sharpest. Instead, the Al Ain man did nothing before being hooked early on.
Khamis Esmail – 5: It appeared that the Wasl defensive midfielder was utilised on the left wing. The question is, why did that happen?
Khalfan Mubarak – 4: Biggest disappointment of a disappointing night. Looked lost in the formation and was deservedly hooked.
Ali Mabkhout – 5: The fans could not believe it when a golden opportunity was spurned in second half by the predator from Al Jazira.
Saif Rashed – 7: Stretched Bahrain with his pace and drive. Should have started.
Mohamed Abdulrahman – 7: Added a bit of thought and liveliness to a plodding midfield
Ahmed Khalil – N/A: Several seasons of under-performance dissipated with this clinical penalty when the UAE needed him. Excellent way to mark a 100th cap.
Sayed Shubbar Alawi – 6: The Bahrain goalkeeper would have expected an onslaught. Instead, he had few saves of note to make.
Sayed Redha Isa – 7: Kept it steady on his flank and then produced the all-important cross that team-mate Al Romaihi pounced upon.
Hamad Al-Shamsan – 7: Showed a physical presence against the usually formidable Mabkhout. Deserved to be on a winning team.
Waleed Al Hayam – 7: Another centre-back who shone for Bahrain in a remarkable display. At 27-years old, is a player coming into his own.
Ahmed Juma – 6: Would have been unsettled by Al Hammadi’s early dynamism, but responded well to this challenge. Solid stuff.
Komail Al Aswad – 6: Came exceedingly close at the end of the first half through a free-kick. An inventive presence in the middle.
Abdulwahab Al-Safi – 7: A redoubtable display from one of the veterans of this inexperienced side. This leadership was required in Abu Dhabi.
Sayed Dhiya Saeed – 6: Was tasked with keeping it tight in middle, but still took the chance several times in first half to put in good crosses.
Ali Madan – 7: His rasping second-half shot caused panic in UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa. Was a profitable outlet for the Bahrainis.
Mohamed Al Romaihi – 8: Stood in superbly for injured star striker Abdulla Yusuf Helal. Required two bites at getting the opener for Bahrain.
Jamal Rashid – 6: Another attacker who hit the flank when in possession and tucked inside when Bahrain did not have the ball. Decent.
Abdulla Yusuf Helal – N/A: New Slavia Prague buy was restricted by injury to a late cameo role.
Mohamed Marhoon – N/A: Had barely been on the pitch by the time he was punished, harshly, for handball.
Sami Al Husaini – N/A: Thrown on at the death to try and eat up time.