Words by Martin Lowe
A great way to exit the tournament for two sides who can leave Australia with their heads held high as UAE triumphed over Gulf rivals Iraq by three goals to two. Iraq initially overturned an early deficit to lead 2-1 into the break, but a quick fire double after the break coupled with going down to 10 men was enough to see Iraq go behind and lose the fight for the Bronze medal.
All in all, UAE would argue they’ve deserved it more over the tournament as they finish the Asian Cup with the top two current goal scorers and arguably the player of the tournament. That player being the wonderful talent of Omar Abdulrahman, who continues to be the name on everyone’s lips after another creative and devastating performance. His style in the tournament has brought criticism from outside, being labelled lazy by Aussie centre back Trent Sainsbury and arrogant from other parts of the footballing world. This game however composed a response in the best fashion for Omar, having a hand in two of UAE’s three goals.
The first was a sensational break that involved all three of their impressive attacking trio. Abdulrahman played a quick one-two with the free running Ahmed Ali Mabkhout before sliding it through to Ahmed Khalil to slot past Hameed in the Iraqi net. It was skipper for the day Khalil’s third of the campaign after a brace against Qatar in the opener and he wasn’t done with the scoring there.
However, it was Iraq who reacted first from going behind. Radhi Shenaishi’s side sat back soaking up the pressure but impressively hitting the Emirati side on the break. The recalled Amjed Kalaf was working wonders down the Iraqi right and linked up beautifully with his full back Waleed Salim to create the equaliser. Salim’s ferocious shot flew past Eisa via a deflection to bring the game level but Iraq weren’t done there as they took the lead immediately before half time. Kalaf this time turned goalscorer after Eisa could only palm Ahmed Yasin’s long range effort.
Some what of a shock given the possession stats but UAE recovered straight after the break. Abdulrahman with another delicious pass setting up Khalil for his second and fourth of the tournament drawing him level in the Golden Boot stakes. His partner in crime Mabkhout, who was looking for the accolade himself ensured he’d pip Khalil for the award as he raced onto a loose ball only to be cynically felled by Ahmed Ibrahim. The Iraqi who has grown with reputation as the tournament progressed was sent to the stands, a cruel turnaround for Iraq only minutes after their half time lead.
Of course it was Mabkhout who stepped up to the spot, placing it cooly home and going some way to guaranteeing the Golden Boot. Only Tim Cahill (currently on three goals) has a realistic opportunity to displace Mabkhout (five goals), who is aiming for a trio of top goalscorer awards after finishing top of the pops in Asian Cup qualification and at November’s Gulf Cup. For once, Mabkhout had been quite unassuming, relied upon to do more of the donkey work down the left, proving his immense flexibility that has been a pattern of his rise over the last 12 months.
From then forward UAE managed the game to safety, apart from a couple of half attempts from Iraq they cruised through to clinch the bronze medal. Abdulrahman looked a cool, calm head in the centre, but alongside him Khamis Esmaeel had another quietly effective but generally overlooked match. From distance he’s looked a threat but again he kept things ticking over in the Emirati midfield.
Iraq leave the tournament in high spirits after a remarkable turnaround in form from a disastrous 2014. They have an exciting youth set up that can only get better with time, while their wise headed attacker Younis Mahmoud continues to defy his critics with another threatening performance. This was a match that show cased all that is good in West Asia and while no side from the Gulf made it through to the final, promising signs point towards the future with World Cup qualification now on the horizon.