Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

Syria and Palestine share goalless draw as Asian Cup clash fails to live up to the hype

A tepid match in Sharjah sees both sides collect a point in Group B

Syria versus Palestine in Sharjah was supposed to be a football celebration for two sets of supporters who face obvious challenges when it comes to following their teams.

At least those in the stands kept up their part of the bargain. On the field, the party fell flat as the two teams opened up their 2019 Asian Cup campaigns with a tepid goalless draw.

While Syria might have expected better, and Palestine hoped for it, both could take one significant positive at the end of Match Day 1. With a point apiece, each of them finished the night higher in Group B than the mighty defending champions Australia.

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Before they had even left the team hotel, the sides will have known about the shock result from the other opening round match in their group.

Jordan had beaten Australia, the defending champions, in Al Ain. Whether that makes the path to the next phase easier for either is not clear.

What it did mean, though, was that accepted wisdom counted for little – a fact further emphasised by India thrashing Thailand in Sunday’s second match.

That sequence of results might have put the Syrians on guard. They were strongly favoured ahead of this game, against a Palestine side that had lost all three of their matches on their Asian Cup debut in Australia four years ago.

Syria might have revelled in the role of underdogs that they wore so vividly as they got to within an ace of making it to the World Cup in Russia last year. Their secret is most definitely out now, though.

With the likes of Omar Kharbin, who in 2017 became the first Syrian to be named Asia’s player of the year, they have high hopes of making it deep into this competition – at the very least making it out of the group stage for the first time in six attempts.

This fixture was said to have been the hottest ticket in the opening round of matches – a sell-out, with tickets commanding a vast sell-on price.

But when the sides kicked off, as much as 30 per cent of Sharjah Stadium was empty. By the end, the official attendance was 8,471, which is some way short of capacity.

The vast holes in the crowd at the start might have had something to do with the fact the Syrian support had all seemingly attempted to cram in together, near halfway on the southern side of the ground.

It made for a rowdy atmosphere, especially when bolstered by the sound of drums and trumpets - not to mention the smaller but scarcely-less voluble Palestine contingent.

While the expectation was frenzied, the fare on the field did little to stir the senses. Syria, as was expected, started the stronger, but Palestine were rarely in serious trouble, at least until Kharbin had a header expertly saved by Rami Hamada on 28 minutes.

While chances were few, endeavour was plentiful, and tackles were fierce. Mohammed Al Saleh, the Palestine defender, was shown yellow for a reckless lunge on Fahad Youssef on the edge of the box. He was lucky the free-kick did not eventuate to anything.

Saleh was crestfallen when he was subsequently shown red for felling Kharbin in an aerial duel on 69 minutes. While the second yellow card might have been harsh, he had been treading a thin line since the first booking.

Again, the free-kick by Omar Al Soma, Kharbin’s strike-partner, came to nothing, but Palestine were facing mounting odds, a man down and with all the pressure heading their way.

With 10 minutes left, Al Soma had a header turned around the post by Hamada. Again, Palestine cleared the danger. Again, the waves came back at them.

Palestine, though, held tight, and it was their supporters who cheered loudest when the referee blew for full time. They were there when their side had registered its first ever Asian Cup point.

Updated: January 6, 2019 10:20 PM

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