UAE captain Ismail Matar expects his side to show their true quality when they face defending champions Australia in the Asian Cup quarter-final on Friday.
The host nation came through a tense last-16 encounter with Kyrgyzstan in Abu Dhabi on Monday night, when they needed an Ahmed Khalil penalty in extra time to prevail 3-2.
The UAE had twice led at Zayed Sports City Stadium, but conceded an injury-time equaliser to push the game into the additional 30-minute period. They were fortunate at times to progress, with Asian Cup debutants Kyrgyzstan hitting the woodwork three times, twice in the second half of extra time.
However, Matar believes Friday’s last-eight clash with Australia could actually allow the UAE to express themselves more, given their 2015 Asian Cup conquerors came into the event as one of the favourites for the title.
“When you play a 50-50 game, you can show your quality, you can show your personality more,” Matar said. “When you have the pressure on you and you have to go an attack and score and have to win, it’s always difficult. Sometimes you don’t know how to play.
“And it depends on the other team, who can make it tough for you. The Kyrgyzstan team are really, really good – they have quality. It was not an easy task. But like I told you, in a 50-50 game, more like against Australia, I think we will be better.”
The UAE remain unbeaten thus far this campaign, and qualified as group winners for the knockout stages, but they have been far from their best. Alberto Zaccheroni's side opened with a 1-1 draw against Bahrain, before claiming a lucky 2-0 victory against India and then drawing 1-1 with Thailand.
The performances have increased the criticism of Zaccheroni, who has been lambasted throughout his 15-month tenure for what many perceive to be an overly defensive approach.
Yet Matar dismissed suggestions his side had been too cautious once again against Kyrgyzstan, citing Saudi Arabia's 1-0 defeat to Japan earlier on Monday as an example that teams do not always get what they deserve.
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“Always when you try to protect the result there is pressure,” Matar said. “We are the team that don’t give a good impression the last three games. People are expecting more from us, and we don’t really play that well.
“So today was this one-off game: do you want to play well or you want to win? We want to win. We didn’t want to just play well. Playing well didn’t help Saudi Arabia today. They played a really good game and, at the end of the day, Japan won.
“Sometimes in this kind of game you look only for winning. You don’t look for a great game. The big lesson for us was Japan against Saudi Arabia. Japan are the better team, but they respected Saudi Arabia, who had more possession, and we saw all the Japanese team defending. When you want to win a title you have to do whatever makes you win.”
The Kyrgyzstan match marked Matar’s first start this Asian Cup after the veteran forward suffered a fractured cheekbone playing for Al Wahda last month. As well as a place in the line-up, he was also given the captain’s armband.
“To be honest I was scared,” Matar said. “For a long, long time – one month and something – I wasn’t playing and the last two games I played only 10 minutes, 10 minutes, and now I have to start. But when you’ve got experience you have to use it.”