The UAE displayed the “character of a champion” to defeat holders Australia and book a place in the Asian Cup semi-final, according to manager Alberto Zaccheroni.
The hosts saw off the reigning continental champions at a packed Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Friday night, when Ali Mabkhout's 68th-minute goal decided a keenly contested last-eight clash in Al Ain.
The UAE, runners-up the only other time the Asian Cup was staged in the Emirates, next face Qatar in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. The national team will seek to at least emulate their 1996 side, who made it through to the showpiece to record the country’s best finish at the tournament to date.
“Today, the UAE showed their great character - a champion’s character,” Zaccheroni said. “It is a deserved victory against a champion in Australia. We defended well and attacked well. We were suffering from aerial balls, but we fought well and won the match. We will have this going forward in the future.”
Appointed in October 2017, Zaccheroni has been heavily criticised throughout his tenure for what many perceive to be an overly defensive approach. Before the tournament, the UAE had registered only six victories in 18 matches with the Italian in charge, however they remain unbeaten thus far in the Asian Cup.
Against Australia, they defended stoutly despite losing Mohammed Ahmed and Fares Juma to injury - the former early on and the latter right at the death. Friday's performance, though, arguably represented the best of the Zaccheroni era.
“I am a practical head coach and always ready for criticism,” said the 2011 Asian Cup winner with Japan. “My work is to look for, and find, a stable way of playing. I must make use of the best elements available in the right time and right manner. I must take advantage of the players’ skill to have a balanced style.
“We played collectively today and the most important thing was that the players have confidence in their head coach. They understand the way of playing, the way of thinking. They are genuine players and showed quality throughout 90 minutes. They created chances and were balanced.
“I want to thank them for their efforts. The whole team deserved to win and thanks to the fans for standing behind us. We are so happy that we made them happy tonight.”
As is so often the case, Mabkhout was on the scoresheet. The Al Jazira striker, top scorer in the 2015 tournament, struck the decisive blow with 22 minutes remaining, capitalising on a mistake from Australia defender Milos Degenek to round goalkeeper Mat Ryan and tap home. It took Mabkhout's tally to four this month.
“Everyone agrees that Mabkhout is a high-calibre striker and big player,” Zaccheroni said. “His performance tonight was great. We rely on the collective performance and his goal was critical. It turned the whole match.”
On the upcoming semi-final against Qatar, Zaccheroni added: “To be honest with you, I did not pay attention to Qatar. I focused on Kyrgyzstan [in the last 16] and Australia. I don’t think about the confrontation against Qatar - we are dealing with the matches step by step.
“I haven't had enough time yet to analyse Tuesday’s match. It will be a different game and it has its own factors. As of tomorrow, I’ll start analysing the opponent.”