The feeling coming out of some media outlets after the Japanese quarter final labels UAE as one of the greatest upsets in Asian Cup history. In fact despite Japan being cited as the clear pre-tournament favourites, anyone who has been considering Asian football for the last few years will know the Emirati victory wasn’t a mere fluke. Ahead of their upcoming semi final against the host country Australia, Martin Lowe considers the mood in the UAE camp and what the key talking points will be if they are going to provide another “shock” on Tuesday.
Mahdi Ali’s tactical approach
Since the penalty shoot out victory over Japan, it’s been widely debated (not least amongst the Asian contingent at Sandals for Goalposts) whether Ali’s more defensive approach was ultimately lucky or adaptively inspired. For much of the tournament and in recent preparations UAE have played to their strengths in attack, adopting a proactive approach irrespective of their opposition. This was apparent in their final group match, as they went onto dominate play against another Asian powerhouse in Iran before conceding against the run of play.
I argue that it was systematically thought by Ali as the best approach to contain Japan, going on to restrict the space of Kagawa and Honda, without leaving themselves open to goals from set pieces or crosses, due to the lack of a physical presence in the Japanese squad. Against Australia this will be a wholly different prospect. Australia are little less well drilled defensively, the return to an attacking philosophy would work wonders for UAE. Plus sitting back and soaking up pressure is unlikely to work against the Socceroos, given the form of Tim Cahill, who must be kept as far away from goal as possible.
Personnel wise, Ali has a number of selection issues to sort out. Abdelaziz Hussain was sufficient in his play at left back against the Japanese, but will expect to make way for Walid Abbas. In the centre, winning penalty taker Ismail Ahmed could force an inclusion due to his immense physical advantage which could be helpful against the in form Cahill. However, as he’s been 4th down the pecking order so far, Ali may settle for the same defensive partnership of Ahmed and Salem. Further up the field, the only question mark will be where the attacking tandem of Ahmed Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman will be deployed, which could see right winger Al-Hammadi drop to the bench.
The rising stars of Mabkhout & Abdulrahman
The Japense encounter further pushed forward UAE’s star men into the limelight, with both of their talisman providing glimpses of the talents that many are tipping will force a move to Europe later in the year. Mabkhout’s 4th goal in as many games broke the deadlock expertly, while Abdulrahman’s “Panenka” chip penalty in the shootout made headline news across the footballing world, while being circled as a repetitively played vine across social media.
Ahmed Ali Mabkhout has continued an explosive 12 months, after topping the scoring charts in both Asian Cup qualification and at the recent Gulf Cup. His movement continues to impress, initially not striking the frame of a typical out and out goalscorer. He’s also shown a different edge to his ability with each of his goals, which will prove immensely difficult to prepare for for the Aussies, as no one can really expect how he’ll play next. His style has tended to be affected by the system in which he’s been deployed. Whether it’s out wide, as a lone forward, or in a typical two man forward line, he’s shown crucial flexibility when seeking to unlock tough defences.
While the goals have rained in on the scoresheet for Mabkhout, Omar Abdulrahman’s ability needs to be seen to be credited. He has long been billed as a Middle Eastern superstar, Omar has illustrated his vision, fleet footed ability and movement without possession throughout the competition. Something that’s come into my focus more firmly is his ability to ride fouls and continue to play his own game. So far it’s been critiqued that Korea Republic’s Son Heung-Min hasn’t imposed himself fully yet due to targeted treatment from the opposition. While this has come as a shock to the Koreans, UAE and Abdulrahman have had to deal with this for years and have adapted accordingly. Again, like Mabkhout, Ali’s positioning of the big haired playmaker will settle the approach. Initially flung out on the right, the Emirati coach seems adamant that the best route forward is to settle Omar in a central attacking role, especially given the Socceroos’ recent weakness in this area.
The Newcastle effect
An obvious consequence of playing the hosts is the Partizan atmosphere you are expecting to be subject to. Throughout the tournament, Australia have seemingly upped their game when the big attendances have rolled in, however in the semis they’ll have to do with a much smaller crowd than they’re used to. The choice of Newcastle to host one of the semis is coming back round to backfire on the Aussies, who may have expected their side to be present on the other side of the draw if they’d topped their group, to line up in the grander Sydney ANZ Stadium on Monday instead of Newcastle.
Some 60,000 fewer seats will be filled when the match kicks off in Newcastle, something that’ll clearly play into the hands of UAE, who haven’t seen any where near comparable numbers travel to see their side down under. The fact that UAE have almost always been put in the underdog’s corner by match announcers could also aid their cause. From the get go, Qatar, Iran, Japan and now Australia have all been labelled as favourites, something the Emiratis have relished in their performances. It could be argued that their weakest performance came when they were expected to ease past Bahrain, resulting in a tense and nervy 2-1 victory thanks to an unlucky own goal.
It’s starting to feel like it’s UAE’s time in the spotlight, as everything starts to fall into place. After the farce that was the World Cup in Brazil, Asia is demanding one of the lesser known nations to stand up and restore the continent’s footballing credibility. Lest we forget the Asian Cup winners will travel to Russia in two years time to compete in the Confederations Cup, the outside world’s next opportunity to grade Asian footballs progress. The spirit is high in the camp, everyone has written them off after a defensive performance against the reigning champions, but don’t forget the gems which they possess. It’s all in the hands of Mahdi Ali, can he conjure another well executed plan of progression, this time against the hosts?