By Martin Lowe
UAE progress to their first Asian Cup semi-final since their home games in 1996, at the expense of favourites Japan who fail to retain their title from 4 years ago. The match went all the way through to penalties after UAE’s early lead was cancelled out in the second half by Japan. The winning penalty was scored by Asian Player of the Year nominee Ismail Ahmed, smashing it low and hard past Eiji Kawashima to send the crowd into raptures, celebrating their young and attacking team’s progress to the last four.
For all their attacking abilities however, it would’ve taken the most hardened of Emirati fan to suggest that they deserved to win during the regulation 120 minutes. After taking an early lead through the explosive Ahmed Ali Mabkhout (his 4th of the tournament), UAE sat back, preferring to hit on the counter rather than their usually instinctive possession based game. For Japan, the defeat was was a huge disappointment, rather more than final result but the fact they controlled the possession for 95% of the match.
Gaku Shibasaki climbed off the bench to equalise in the 81st minute, but a second never came despite numerous opportunities seeing Japan go close through substitutes Muto, Toyoda and an out of character Honda. In truth, while Japan were poor in front of goal, UAE defended manfully in the closing stages, showing a new side to their game, from their usually open attacking style.
The penalty shoot-out, like the previous stalemated extra-time period was tense, but in a match billed as a contest between two of the most exciting playmakers in Asia, one ultimately shone brighter than the other. Keisuke Honda stepped up for the first Japanese penalty, only to blaze high and wide, before being followed up by the diminutive Emirati midfielder Omar Abdulrahman to coolly chip it down the centre of the goal.
Abdulrahman’s “Panenka” was more than just a goal to take them one clear of Japan, it was a statement of calm and a confidence boost that was needed for an exhausted UAE nation. As Andrea Pirlo did against England at Euro 2012, Abdulrahman proved a class apart within the game and justified his incredible hype by confidently tricking Kawashima in the Japanese goal. His talent is as large as his Afro, but while his hair gets trimmed from time to time, his potential continues to grow with every given match.
Irrespective of which way the shootout finally ended, UAE’s previous performances would have led them to leave the tournament as heroes, the classic outsiders who rose with prominence during every single match. Japan on the other hand were in a sticky situation, with little to win from the public who expected at least a final appearance to be satisfied with their retention campaign. Allegations of match fixing over manager Javier Aguirre continue to circle, adding to the misery of defeat that will likely see the Mexican exit the stage way ahead of Asian World Cup qualification later in the year.
In the other dugout, Mahdi Ali’s reputation rises as quickly as his side’s does. He proves more than a one trick pony, enabling such an attacking set of players to work as one to frustrate and ultimately nullify a superiorly experienced side. Speculation suggests Ali’s tenure only has week’s left to run before the possibility of being tempted into club management. Whatever happens, he’s created a unified squad which will feel confident that they can secure their first World Cup appearance since 1990.
Next up, another tie that pits UAE as the underdogs as they match up against the hosts Australia. Mabkhout and Abdulrahman will be out in force once again with the wind in their sails, a menace to any defence, but now crucially UAE will have the confidence to nullify the Socceroos’ attack. Yet another great tale awaits, in this continually enthralling tournament down under.