Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 May 2019

UAE seek another heroic performance as history beckons for Asian Cup hosts

National team put on a warrior-like display in the quarter-finals to eliminate defending champions Australia - now another is needed to reach the final on home soil

In the end, it was hardly the Alamo, but still, UAE bodies were scattered.

Fares Juma, the towering centre-back, required treatment pitchside following a clash of heads, and was somehow allowed back into the fray. Reeling, he was eventually carried away on a stretcher.

Ismail Ahmed, his defensive partner and no less committed, sought respite on his haunches, another Australian attack repelled, his side another inch closer to the Asian Cup semi-finals.

Out on the right, Bandar Al Ahbabi had run what must have felt to Abu Dhabi and back and, for a moment, seemed set to make the faraway corner of the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium his home until his legs could trail to the sanctity of the changing room.

There were others, too. Ali Salmeen appeared to have rushed across every blade of grass in a vigorous midfield display. Walid Abbas, the veteran defender who until that point had yet to play a single minute, answered the call to arms, setting up a roadblock on the left.

On the opposite flank, a fresh-faced Khalifa Al Hammadi had been thrust into his competitive debut because of an early injury to Mohammed Ahmed. Al Hammadi, aged 20, in the last-eight of the Asian Cup, against the defending champions. In front of 25,000 expectant fans. But he belied his inexperience to help see the UAE through.

A goal to the good, the hosts shielded their net as if lives depended on it. Increasingly desperate, Australia catapulted balls into the penalty area, but most were beat back. Despite the frantic final throes, goalkeeper Khalid Essa was rarely tested.

The UAE had saved their best performance this month, and most probably of the Alberto Zaccheroni era, for when it mattered most. Criticised for stuttering through to the quarter-finals, they stymied the holders and strode into the last four.

Qatar lay next in the semis, stood between the UAE and a second appearance in an Asian Cup final. The national team are two matches from what always seemed an unlikely title. Another gargantuan effort is required.

Speaking in the bowels of the stadium on Friday, as the Australia success and its repercussions began to sink in, captain Ismail Matar emphasised that opportunities such as this maybe come around but once in a career. Maybe never.

Emirati supporters wave the national flag during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final football match between UAE and Australia at Hazaa bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain on January 25, 2019. / AFP / Giuseppe CACACE
Emirati supporters wave the national flag during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final football match between UAE and Australia at Hazaa bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain on January 25, 2019. / AFP / Giuseppe CACACE

Long-serving and battle-hardened, Matar has witnessed nearly all in UAE white, but he has yet to see his country seize the continent’s premier prize. No one has, for the 1996 runner-up finish, when Saudi Arabia prevailed on penalties in Abu Dhabi, remains the closest the national team have come to the crown.

Qatar, though, form the immediate focus. Like the UAE, they are unbeaten thus far this tournament. Their record reads: five matches played, five matches won. They have yet to concede a goal.

However, in Ali Mabkhout and Ismail Al Hammadi, and the energetic Al Ahbabi should he recover his legs in time, the UAE have to tools to trouble their opponents. They will sense they can survive the injuries to defenders Mohammed Ahmed and Khalifa Mubarak, even patch up Juma should he, as expected, be passed fit to play.

A partisan crowd at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday - not the 25,000 last Friday but bloated close to 40,000 and more - will urge the players on. Maybe Zaccheroni, much-maligned up until that memorable win last week, can coax another colossal endeavour from his charges.

Simply, he has to. The significance of the occasion demands it.

Updated: January 29, 2019 08:34 AM



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