AL AIN // If this were a preview of the Asian Cup, both the UAE national side and tournament organisers in Qatar have reason to be excited.
An animated crowd of more than 6,000 watched the UAE and Syria engage in a impassioned, high-energy match won last night by the home side through second-half goals by Saeed al Kathiri and Theyab Awana at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium.
The Asian Cup begins on Friday in Qatar and continues until January 29. Both the UAE and Syria will play in the quadrennial continental championship. "To win by two goals to none with Syria is a pretty good result, indeed," said Ismail Matar, the UAE captain whose introduction after the break seemed to invigorate coach Srecko Katanec's side.
"Of course there is always room for improvement and we need to hear that from the coach when we regroup again to work on the areas we need to improve," Matar added.
One topic Katanec is likely to stress is turning chances into goals. The UAE were particularly wasteful in the first 45 minutes, when they had nearly all the good chances. The 19-year-old striker Ahmed Khalil, usually clinical in front of goal squandered several opportunities.
Al Kathiri replaced Khalil on the hour, and the Al Wahda forward scored the game's first goal with his first touch. Khalid Sabeel sent a fine cross in from the right, and al Kathiri sprinted on to it. The ball struck his foot and bounced up to his shin, and his forward motion put the ball past Musaheb Belhouse, the Syrian goalkeeper, on the near post.
Awana, the Baniyas midfielder, got the clinching goal in the 89th minute by heading in a corner from Matar, a ball Belhouse was unable to reach as he came off his line.
Katanec's first XI were a young side, by design; he wanted a chance to see the age-group players who won a silver medal at the Asian Games for the Olympic (Under 23) team.
"The idea was for the coach to have a look at those players that were not in the Gulf Cup squad," said Ismail Rashid, the team manager. "He started with those who travelled for the Asian Games at the same time as the Gulf Cup.
"In terms of the result, it is always good to win the friendlies to build the confidence of the players. I think we did pretty well to win 2-0 against a team that's also preparing for the same competition."
The UAE had the better of the exchanges in the first half, with Ismail al Hammadi involved in all the moves.
The diminutive midfielder curled in a cross that fell away from Khalil and later set up his Al Ahli teammate with a golden chance to break the deadlock, which Khalil wasted with a feeble effort on a one-to-one with Belhouse.
Omer Abdulrahman then failed to get a touch on a rebound when Belhouse blocked a low shot from al Hammadi. Syria's best chance was an effort from Jihad al Hussein from the near post approaching half time.
Katanec made three changes at the half, bringing in Matar, Awana and Abdullah Mousa, and adding al Kathiri 15 minutes later. Syria generated some opportunities early in the second session, but the goalkeeper Ali Kashief was never really tested.
The UAE side looked more composed after the changes.
Khalil was wasteful again on a pass from Matar 12 minutes into the second half. He had enough time but managed only to put a shot over the crossbar.
The UAE are in Group D in the Asian Cup along with North Korea, whom they play first on January 11. Iraq, the defending champions, and Iran are the other teams in what appears to be the strongest group.
The UAE are ranked No 105 in the world by Fifa and Syria are No 107.
The home side likely will face a stiffer test on Wednesday when Australia provides the opposition at Al Ain. The Australians, one of the favourites for the Asian Cup, are ranked No 25, the highest placing for any Asian side.