Typically a man for the grand occasion, Ahmed Khalil proved the UAE’s rescue act once more.
Like much of this Asian Cup on home soil, the hosts scraped by, doing just about enough to see off Kyrgyzstan on a frantic night in Abu Dhabi. Somewhat fortuitously, a place in the quarter-finals is theirs.
For the majority, it was not pretty at a half-full Zayed Sports City Stadium on Monday night. The UAE lead twice and twice surrendered their advantage, the second slip pushing the match to extra time. But having been introduced late into the game, Khalil produced the goods yet again, from his familiar comfort of the penalty spot.
The UAE eked a 3-2 victory, finally dispatched the debutants to tee up a last-eight encounter against Australia. Vast improvement will be required in Al Ain on Friday, against the defending champions and in a re-run of the 2015 semi-final, but they should be thankful simply to be there. It had almost slipped away.
The UAE had been granted the perfect start. On 14 minutes, the recalled Ismail Matar’s corner was headed goalwards by Khalifa Mubarak, before Khamis Esmail directed home.
However, just like against Thailand last week, the hosts let their opponents back in. Their lead lasted 12 minutes. Discovering space had opened up, Kyrgyzstan’s Akhlidin Israilov floated a pass through to Mirlan Murzaev. The powerful forward had run off the back of Esmail and, advancing into the gap before him, rounded goalkeeper Khalid Essa to slide the ball into the UAE goal.
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Both Mubarak and Bandar Al Ahbabi had skidded to clear, with the former clattering the base of the post. As Kyrgyzstan celebrated the equaliser and settled back into their rhythm, Mubarak was carried off on a stretcher.
The UAE should have reclaimed the advantage moments into the second half, but Mabkhout failed somehow to provide the finishing touch to Al Ahbabi’s run and fine cross. Nodding wide from four yards, the 2015 Asian Cup top scorer continues to struggle to live up to his star billing - despite two goals thus far.
Not long after Mabkhout’s miss, Kyrgyzstan struck the woodwork. Captain Valerii Kichin curled the ball off the UAE upright. Rooted to the spot, Essa breathed a hefty sigh of relief. Those inside the stadium did too.
On 64 minutes, and against the run of play, the UAE went 2-1 up. Having only been introduced, Ismail Al Hammadi chased down a lost cause and the ball eventually found its way to Amer Abdulrahman, who flighted a perfectly weighted pass to Mabkhout. This time, the Al Jazira striker made no mistake, controlling well before firing past Kutman Kadyrbekov in the Kyrgyzstan goal.
As the match crawled to its conclusion, Kyrgyzstan pressed. Just when they seemed set to rue poor finishing, they struck right at the death, when substitute Tursunali Rustamov brushed home Anton Zemlianukhin’s 91st-minute corner. Deservedly, Kyrgyzstan had a lifeline.
In the first half of extra time, Mabkhout screwed high and wide when through on goal, then scuffed at Al Hammadi’s cross when well-placed to score. Then Khalil provided the saving touch. Mabkhout had been pulled back in the box by Bekzhan Sagynbaev, leaving Khalil to slot his penalty past Kadyrbekov, although only just.
Still, Kyrgyzstan twice struck the woodwork. That about summed up the UAE’s night, even their tournament thus far. They stumble on.