Late Al Ghassani goal takes UAE into Asian Cup knockouts despite defeat against Iran

Paulo Bento's side through on goal difference after 2-1 loss in Qatar

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The UAE not much so marched into the Asian Cup knockouts as placed both feet gently across the threshold, but for now, it will matter little how they got there.

In the end, a 2-1 defeat to Iran wasn’t particularly damaging, Paulo Bento’s side having done enough in their opening two matches to scrape through as Group C runners-up – on goal difference.

On Tuesday night at Education City Stadium, their fate was dependent not only on themselves; less than 10 kilometres away in Doha, Palestine were ensuring Emirati nails were bitten to the nub. Playing simultaneously, Palestine were 3-0 up in their final pool match with Hong Kong, and at one point and then another were taking second spot instead.

However, Yayha Al Ghassani atoned for a missed penalty in stunning fashion in the 93rd minute and the UAE were through. The relief was palpable; it was probably transported across the Gulf to their compatriots in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and throughout the neighbouring Emirates.

By the end of it all, it was hard to remember the UAE had required only a point to finish second. Yet the odds felt against them even before the teams were confirmed around an hour prior to kick-off.

Bento’s side went into the game without Khalifa Al Hammadi, their most experienced international defender, who was suspended following a red card against Palestine on Matchday 2 last Thursday.

Sultan Adil, the revelation this tournament with goals in both previous group games, was ruled out with a knee injury. To rub salt in the wound, Bento was made to watch the action from the stands, his own red card from the Palestine encounter preventing him from taking station on the touchline.

There wasn’t even Ali Mabkhout to call upon. The UAE’s all-time leading scorer, Asian Cup Golden Boot winner in 2015 but unused thus far in Qatar, did not feature in the squad for the night. In Mabkhout’s stead, winger Al Ghassani led the line. Harib Abdallah, the fleet-footed attacking wideman, slotted into a rejigged back five, at wing-back.

And it was only Iran they were playing. Only Iran, Asia’s second highest-ranked team at 21st in the world – the UAE sit 64th – and thus coming into the competition this month as one of the tournament favourites. The three-time continental champions boast a frontline the envy of possibly all their rivals in Qatar: Azmoun plays his club football for Roma, and with 50 international goals, scores at a clip of pretty much one every game and a half.

His partner in crime, Mehdi Taremi, was top scorer in last season’s Primeira Liga, with Porto. His international ratio is not far below Azmoun’s.

To further underline the point, Saman Ghoddos has 14 English Premier League appearances for Brentford this season. In contrast, the entire UAE squad are home-based, plying their trade in the Adnoc Pro League.

So it did not surprise that, for much of the match, Iran appeared too sturdy, too streetwise. Clearly, the UAE missed Adil’s physical presence, and Caio Canedo’s running. The latter, starting as a substitute, was introduced midway through the second half.

Halfway through the first, Taremi sped on to Azmoun’s deft flick and finished expertly past Khalid Essa in the UAE goal. Iran then had a goal disallowed because Ali Gholizadeh’s knee was offside.

On 60 minutes, Al Ghassani was felled in the Iran penalty area, but saw his effort saved by spot-kick king Alireza Beiranvand. In an instant, Iran raced up the other end and made it two, Taremi again fed in by Azmoun to rifle the ball high into the UAE net.

With six minutes of normal time remaining, Mohammad Mohebi had Iran’s third chalked off – after a long VAR intervention – for a barge on Majed Rashid. Then Al Ghassani galloped down the left, chopped inside, and whipped a delicious effort past Beiranvand.

Just to add to the drama, and to give the permutation police another headache, Hong Kong won a penalty in the final minute of added time in their game. They missed and Palestine won 3-0 to go through into the knockouts as one of the best third-place finishers.

The UAE, with still five of their own 13 minutes of stoppage time remaining, would not be given that extra layer of comfort.

But it wasn’t needed. Both they and Iran appeared for settle for 2-1, and the UAE were through to face Tajikistan on Sunday. As if it was ever in any doubt.

Updated: January 23, 2024, 7:36 PM