Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 November 2020

UAE great sporting moments - No10: Omar Abdulrahman's Panenka penalty helps UAE shock Japan at Asian Cup

Mahdi Ali's side prevailed 5-4 in the shootout at the 2015 tournament

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Every day over three weeks, The National looks back at the 21 greatest moments in UAE sports history.

Keisuka Honda and Shinji Kagawa missed; Omar Abdulrahman produced a Panenka. Then Ismail Ahmed sealed one of the greatest upsets in Asian Cup history.

The UAE won through, a place in the last four of the continent’s premier competition secure. Japan, defending champions and Asian heavyweights, were out.

The UAE and Abdulrahman had stunned the holders, the 19,000 thousand inside Stadium Australia in Sydney and the millions watching the quarter-final unfold on TV.

A giant of a performance was required all right, after the UAE seized a surprise lead in the seventh minute. Racing onto Amer Abdulrahman’s pass, Ali Mabkhout sent a half-volley whistling past Eiji Kawashima in the Japan net. The Al Jazira striker’s fine output sustained: it was his fourth goal of the tournament.

From that point, the UAE fought with every sinew to hold on to their lead. With nine minutes remaining, they relented. Substitute Gaku Shibasaki scored a fine goal and Japan laid siege, through the final throes of the 90 minutes and throughout extra-time, too.

Muhaned Salem, left, fights for the ball against Japan's Shinji Okazaki during their Asian Cup quarter-final at Stadium Australia in Sydney. Reuters
Mohanad Salem, left, fights for the ball against Japan's Shinji Okazaki during their Asian Cup quarter-final at Stadium Australia in Sydney. Reuters

Mohanad Salem, the at-times-lampooned Al Ain defender, offered his finest contribution in UAE white. He headed clear crosses, blocked shots. His teammates followed suit, tackling and tracking those in dark blue. They closed space and squeezed the game to penalties.

Then Honda missed and Abdulrahman produced a Panenka. The tournament’s shining light had starred once more, his casual spot-kick soon going viral.

“I told him not to do it again,” said Mahdi Ali, the UAE manager, afterwards. “Because my heart cannot take it.”

Most probably, it skipped another beat. With the shootout poised at 4-4, Kagawa struck the base of the UAE post. It was left to Ahmed, the lanky centre-back, who stood firm to thrash the underdogs through.

Javier Aguirre, the vanquished Japan manager, praised the Emiratis for playing “the match of their lives”. They had survived their venerable opponents, outlasted them 5-4 in the shootout, and ploughed on.

The Australian media heralded their heroics.

“It was the day that turned the Asian Cup on its head,” the Daily Telegraph declared, referencing Iraq’s earlier victory against Iran. “But this was the greatest shock of all.”

The Guardian’s Australian edition championed “one of the biggest upsets in Asian Cup history”.

In the semi-final, the UAE were outdone by Australia, hosts and eventual champions, losing 2-0 against a physically superior side. But they had more than held their own.

Mahdi Ali’s team rounded off a memorable month by defeating Iraq in the play-off for bronze. Mabkhout scored again to clinch the Golden Boot.

It was the UAE’s greatest tournament performance on foreign soil, remembered for arguably their most impressive win to that point. For Abdulrahman’s impudence and Salem’s near-impenetrability.

The following year, the UAE would defeat Japan again, this time in a World Cup qualifier, this time just outside Tokyo. It represented another remarkable juncture in what felt a gilded period for the so-called golden generation.

Updated: July 11, 2020 04:48 PM

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