UAE get past North Korea in qualifying to inch closer to Olympic dream
AL AIN // Mahdi Ali, the UAE coach, was a relieved man after his team took a stumbling yet significant step towards next year's Olympics.
He admitted his side's 1-1 draw against North Korea at Al Ain's Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium last night, which takes them into the third round of Asian Qualifying for the 2012 London Games 2-1 on aggregate, took a lot out of his young players.
The UAE were uninspiring and the North Koreans will head home with justified complaints about the UAE penalty which levelled the scores after they had taken an early lead. The Korean players surrounded the match officials at the end of the game to vent their fury.
"This was a really tough match and I would like to thank all my players because they put in so much effort, especially as we had to come from behind," Ali said.
"I'm delighted to get through to the next round, but we will need to play much better in the group stages.
"My players have had a long season. You must remember that. They have been playing since August and it's to their credit that they got through.
"North Korea are only at the start of their season and have had six friendly matches in two months to prepare for this tie. We had 12 days, so it's a great achievement.
"They had more chances in the game and we made mistakes in the first half, but they recovered well to score.
"I have not seen the penalty yet. It looked like one at the time but, anyway, the only opinion that matters is the referee's."
The seemingly never-ending season has taken so much out of the UAE Under 23 side, yet they persevered and got their reward with an aggregate victory over two legs, the first of which they won 1-0 last week in Pyongyang.
So their Olympic dream is still alive. They now go through the Asian qualifying group, which starts in September, when they will continue their campaign to win a place in London.
This match came to life on 19 minutes when the visitors, who played much better than they performed in the first leg in North Korea last week, shook the majority of the 10,000 crowd with a fine goal.
There looked to have been enough white shirts inside the penalty area to deal with An Il-bom's cross from the left, but they were all caught on their heels as Pak Kwang-ryong rose highest to send a header down past Adel Al Hosani, the UAE goalkeeper.
The home fans were stunned as the small band of North Korea fans celebrated in their own corner.
Ali decided to change his side six minutes later when Haboush Saleh replaced Theyab Awana, and the substitute's first contribution was his team's first meaningful effort, a 20-yard shot which dipped just over the North Koreabar.
The UAE players looked a little lost at this stage, but they then got a bit of luck.
Khalil Ibrahim, the referee, awarded a penalty on 32 minutes when Saleh fell under a challenges by Ri Hyong-mu, although the UAE man appeared to trip over his own feet.
When the official pointed to the spot it which caused fury in the North Korean ranks and the players surrounded Saudi Arabia official who was even pushed twice by Ri Sang-chol. The defender escaped censure when he should have been sent off.
When the fuss eventually died down, almost three minutes later, Hamdan Al Kamali, the UAE captain, sent his penalty low into the bottom left corner.
Pak, the Korean goal scorer, got another glimpse of goal just after half-time, only for Mohammed Ahmad to make a superbly timed tackle inside the box.
The UAE had several shots from distance but never looked like scoring again.
With a quarter of an hour remaining Al Hosani was booked for time wasting.
And with just two minutes remaining, An Il-bom's header was inches away from putting North Korean into the next round but the UAE players were able to hold on to the final whistle to the delight of the fans.