The UAE will aim to pick up their first win as hosts of Asian Cup 2019 against India on Thursday.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s side drew their Group A opener against Bahrain 1-1 on Saturday.
They face an India team who will be in buoyant mood after they began their tournament with an impressive 4-1 victory over 2018 AFF Championship semi-finalists Thailand.
Zaccheroni will hope his UAE outfit can avoid suffering a similar fate to Thailand when they take to Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi on Thursday to face India.
On the same day, Bahrain and Thailand – who are both searching for their first wins of the tournament – meet in Dubai.
The UAE finished in third place at the last AFC Asian Cup held in Australia in 2015 and as runners-up the previous time they hosted the tournament in 1996.
Japan were equal parts impressive and insipid in a topsy-turvy performance that nonetheless sees them lead Group F after the opening round of Asian Cup games.
There was little to complain about when scrutinising Genki Haraguchi’s display, however.
The versatile wide forward jolted a dazed Japan into life as Yuya Osako equalised from his sumptuous through ball soon after Turkmenistan had taken a shock lead.
But that was not all to his run-out…
The Japan’s side last competitive kick before Wednesday was an agonising one, having let a 2-0 lead slip to Belgium in the World Cup round of 16.
Haraguchi was one of the standout performers on that day, having briefly sent the Samurai Blue into ecstasy with the second, and his play continues to put smiles on faces in the UAE.
His arrowed through ball from the left flank was the all-important one as an Osako shimmy later and Japan were level at 1-1.
It was the highlight of his day, but he proved Japan’s only consistent outlet when cutting in.
Each nation has now played once and only one other player – Saudi Arabia midfielder Housain Al Mogahwi – has created as many chances as Haraguchi on five.
Having played a key role for the first, he also sparked the move that led to Osako’s immediate second.
More remarkable still that despite his relative risk-taking in attack, the Hannover winger only misplaced four passes from 52 as Uzbekistan could not get to grips with his purposeful play.
Hitting the target
He didn’t quite pick up the bug from the wasteful Osako, but Haraguchi could have done better with the chances that came his own way.
Two headers, from which the 27-year-old was largely untroubled by Turkmen defenders, went astray in either half as he sought his second-ever goal at a tournament.
Stronger teams will fancy tightening the leash around Haraguchi – but this was a good sign of what’s to come from a team that has two exciting wingers.
Ritsu Doan, only 20, is a genuine menace on the other side of the field and the sight of those two in-stepping their way through defences could be one of the sights of the tournament.
Japan are a touch frailer in attack through the middle. Their fate could rest on performances like Haraguchi delivered on Wednesday.
The UAE will seek to kick-start their Asian Cup campaign on Thursday when they welcome a buoyant India to Abu Dhabi.
The pressure is on for the hosts after their 1-1 draw with unfancied Bahrain, from which 100-cap Ahmed Khalil saved the hosts’ day with an 88th-minute penalty. In contrast, Stephen Constantine’s India emphatically earned their first win at the tournament in 55 years when they battered rising Thailand 4-1.
Here are the talking points ahead of an intriguing Group A meeting:
Talk of a managerial change swiftly enveloped the UAE camp after the weekend’s start.
Indeed, a generously awarded spot-kick for handball was all that separated the Whites from defeat at ZSC.
Reports in the Arabic press spread that an emergency call had been sent out to Croatia’s former Al Ain boss, Zlatko Dalic. But head coach Alberto Zaccheroni remains in situ and he insisted on Wednesday “I don’t care about such stuff” when quizzed.
Away from this distraction, an invaluable chance to reboot the campaign – and narrative – awaits.
Zaccheroni knows how quickly it can change. His Japan side stumbled out of the blocks with a 1-1 stalemate with Lebanon in 2011, but by tournament’s end they were champions.
Even during 1996’s run from the UAE to the final when the event was last held on home soil, a 1-1 opening draw with – admittedly, continental giants – South Korea was recorded.
It is now up to predator Ali Mabkhout to sink the chances that he shows no mercy with when clad in Al Jazira’s colours. Al Ain metronome Amer Abdulrahman must grasp the midfield and skipper Fares Juma exhibit inspirational leadership.
Hope is not lost. Far from it.
ZACCHERONI’S TACTICAL TINKERING
Since his appointment in October 2017, Zaccheroni has struggled to stick with both a settled formation and line-up.
These have included variations of the trademark 3-4-3 that brought the 65-year-old such joy in Serie A with Udinese and AC Milan in the 1990s, to the Middle East’s ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 and a conventional 4-3-3.
A new shape, seemingly, came from nowhere at the weekend. The 4-4-1-1 appeared designed to make the most out of Arabian Gulf League assist-machine Khalfan Mubarak, in the absence through serious injury of heartbeat Omar Abdulrahman.
This did not occur. The team often chose to spread the ball wide, especially to a right flank from where elite anchor man Khamis Esmail was surprisingly stationed.
Mubarak would trudge off early in the second half, his face etched with consternation.
A conservative outlook against the underdogs continued the frustrations about a coach of whom his charges have scored just 11 goals under in 19 games.
India will be happy to cede possession against them on Thursday, then spring on the counter. This ‘rope-a-dope’ approach stunned Thailand.
It is up to the UAE to set the agenda. A start for rampaging second-half substitute Mohamed Abdulrahman will be key to this.
There can be no more reticence. Victory isn’t necessarily a must for qualification, but it is for gaining momentum.