After the pomp and the ceremony, the build-up and the battle cries, the UAE had to haul themselves off the canvas simply to spare their blushes.
The hosts, targeting a run to a second Asian Cup final on home soil, came within three minutes of opening the 2019 tournament, at an expectant but ultimately frustrated Zayed Sports City Stadium, with defeat to Bahrain.
But the UAE were given a late reprieve, a dubious penalty that substitute Ahmed Khalil rifled home on his 100th appearance for the national team. It lifted a ton of pressure from the home side. It lifted a ton, especially, from Alberto Zaccheroni, the manager who continues to struggle in his current role.
The Italian’s 19th match, the most important of his 15 months in charge, failed to grant only the seventh win of his tenure. Once again, goals were hard to come by. But he will perhaps cling to the fact the UAE salvaged a draw. Their Group A campaign has a notch on the board.
While they escaped at the death, the UAE almost had a dream start. On six minutes, Ali Mabkhout released Ismail Al Hammadi down the left, the winger surged goalwards and seemed set to score, only for Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Alawi to tip his shot around the post.
Minutes later, Mabkhout dragged wide an effort when well placed. However, from there the match fell a little flat. Zaccheroni urged his charges to move the ball quicker, the home fans’ enthusiasm drained, and the UAE misplaced passes and took leaden touches.
In contrast, Bahrain grew in confidence. Just before half time, Komail Al Aswad curled a free kick onto the roof of the UAE net. When the whistle went to signal the interval, it offered the 33,000-plus in attendance a respite.
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Seven minutes after the action restarted, Bahrain almost snatched the lead. Ali Madan’s speculative drive was spilled by Khalid Essa and, just as Mohamed Al Romaihi looked certain to pounce, the UAE goalkeeper’s outstretched leg denied him. For the UAE, it delayed disaster.
Requiring an injection of any sort, Zaccheroni raided his bench. On came Mohammed Abdulrahman and Saif Rashid, a double substitution designed to spark the home side. It nearly paid off in the 68th minute, Rashid’s low cross somehow finding its way to Mabkhout via a Bahraini boot, but for the Al Jazira marksman, top of the domestic goalscoring charts this season, flashed his shot wide.
Mabkhout sank to his knees, held his head in his hands. He knew it; everyone else knew it: he should have rippled the net. Having survived, Bahrain pushed forward, Al Romaihi again testing Essa at his near post.
Yet Al Romaihi would not be denied a third time. With 12 minutes remaining, Essa got caught under Sayed Isa’s cross and, when Al Romaihi’s first attempt had been blocked onto his own crossbar by defender Khalifa Mubarak, the ball found it’s way back to the Bahrain No 13 to head home, this time off Fares Juma and the woodwork, too.
Zayed Sports City fell silent. Bahrain’s bench erupted. Zaccheroni merely hung his head and glanced back to his staff.
Then, from nowhere, a pardon. Mohammed Abulrahman’s corner evaded Bahraini Walid Al Hayman and dropped onto teammate Mohammed Marhoon’s hand. The UAE appealed, and the referee award a penalty, although there was little the substitute could have done.
Khalil, introduced only moments before, thudded his spot kick into the net. Blushes spared – just – the UAE move onto India and then Thailand. Vast improvement is needed.