Alberto Zaccheroni praised his UAE side for the character shown in their nervy extra-time victory against Kyrgyzstan on Monday night as they survived a real scare to book a place in the Asian Cup quarter-finals.
The hosts looked destined to progress in normal time having twice taken the lead at Zayed Sports City Stadium, however their opponents scored in the 91st minute to make it 2-2 and stretch the match into extra-time.
It then required a penalty in the first additional period from substitute Ahmed Khalil to get the UAE over the line.
Despite the 3-2 score, Zaccheroni’s team still had to withstand a late rally from cup debutants Kyrgyzstan, who in the closing stages struck the woodwork for the second and third time on the night.
Bronze medalists at the 2015 Asian Cup, the UAE now face defending champions Australia in Al Ain on Friday.
Although the UAE rode their luck at times to advance through against Kyrgyzstan, Zaccheroni said his side did enough to deserve to go through.
“The UAE created some opportunities and scored goals,” he said. “Our team was more aggressive and created lots of opportunities that were not all converted. The UAE had more opportunities than the Kyrgystani team.
“My team always were taking the lead. We showcased a strong personality, especially after the late leveller. We succeeded at the end. We knew very well and we have seen it was a difficult game. I warned the players that Kyrgyzstan are a strong team. Their lines are compact.
“But I thank our players for their reaction. I thank them very much. They played very positively and they managed to score the goals. I thank also the fans for their support and I dedicate this quarter-final place to them. I hope the next game will be better.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Zaccheroni admitted that he did not “know anything” about Australia, who were held to a goalless draw by Uzbekistan on Monday in their last-16 encounter before prevailing on penalties.
The UAE met Australia at the semi-final stage four years ago and were beaten 2-0.
For the rematch, they will be without Khamis Esmail, the scorer of the first goal against Kyrgyzstan, who is suspended having picked up another yellow card, while defender Khalifa Mubarak was stretched off after injuring himself attempting to clear Kyrgyzstan’s first goal.
Zaccheroni praised Khalil, who is yet to start any of the UAE’s four matches but has contributed important goals – both penalties - against Bahrain in the opener and then Kyrgyzstan.
The striker, the 2015 Asian player of the year, has been blighted by injury problems for most of the past year.
“Khalil is a very good striker. He is one of the best attackers in Asia,’ Zaccheroni said. “As a coach, when I took over the UAE, Khalil was injured. He didn’t participate in any training sessions from the last season.
“He hadn’t participated before the  Gulf Cup, wasn’t ready at 100 per cent. He was injured many times last year. He does so much with the national team, compared to his club.
"We try to make use of him in the games. Every time he joins up, he scores a goal. He is a very good player and I count on him a lot.”