For the UAE, first mission accomplished. Only just.
Needing to avoid defeat to Thailand, and match India’s result at the same time, the hosts did enough on Monday night to see themselves right. With a 1-1 draw, the UAE secured top spot in Group A. In theory, a more straightforward tie in the last 16 awaits.
It hasn't been pretty at times but, at the conclusion of the group phase, Alberto Zaccheroni's men had achieved what they set out to. They go into the knockouts as pool winners, settled in part by the Thailand draw at Al Ain's Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, in part by Bahrain's last-gasp winner against India in Sharjah as both games played out simultaneously.
Although the UAE will not know for sure their knockout opponents for a few days yet, that initial box has been checked. They will seek to build from here.
Zaccheroni will take heart from an unbeaten start to the tournament. Having railed pre-match against suggestions he was too defensive-minded, against Thailand the Italian sprung a surprise.
In came Mohammed Ahmed at right-back, with Al Ain teammate Bandar Al Ahbabi shunted forward to play high on the right. Majed Hassan, the intelligent central midfielder, was paired alongside Ali Salmeen in the middle, granting him a first start this campaign.
On seven minutes, Zaccheroni’s adventure was rewarded. Salmeen’s floated pass was collected by advancing left-back Ali Hassan Saleh, who square a low ball into the path of a galloping Ismail Al Hammadi. Unopposed, the UAE captain strode forward and lifted his shot over onrushing Thai goalkeeper Siwarak Tensungnoen, but his effort rebounded off the crossbar. Luckily for the UAE, Ali Mabkhout reacted fastest to head home. It was the striker’s second goal of the tournament; his second in as many games. Suddenly, the 2015 Asian Cup top goalscorer appears in rude health.
Buoyed by the early mark, the UAE were dominant in possession, but still they struggled to create any clear-cut chances. In the 18th minute, Khalfan Mubarak twisted and turned on the edge of the Thai penalty area, but scuffed a tame right-footed shot straight at Siwarak.
Four minutes later, Thailand almost punished some sloppy play from the hosts. Al Ahbabi’s wayward pass was flicked into Adisak Kraisorn’s path by captain Teerasil Dangda, but the forward's snap shot was saved brilliantly by UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa.
Not long before half time, the UAE were made to pay. Al Hammadi had wasted a quick counter-attack moments earlier, when he elected to play in Mubarak instead of going alone. Almost immediately, Thailand were level.
More on Asian Cup:
Livewire Chantathip Songkrasin lifted a pass over the UAE defence and, as Mohammed Ahmed and Ismail Ahmed failed to clear and almost collided, Thitiphan Puangjan found himself with the ball at his feet. The midfielder back-heeled casually past Essa. Once again, the UAE had conspired to gift their rivals an opportunity.
Soon after, in first-half injury time, Mabkhout curled a fine effort onto the top of the Thailand net. A minute into the second half, the Jazira forward stung Siwarak’s palms from range. At the other end, Teerasil directed a corner over the UAE goal from a few yards out. Going at the cross with his head, the ball thudded off his shoulder instead.
As the match lacked for rhythm, Zaccheroni threw on Ahmed Khalil. With his first touch, the powerful striker glanced Mubarak’s free-kick off-target, although he did well simply to get his head on the cross.
With 10 minutes remaining, Khalil curled a free-kick from the left edge of the Thai penalty area high above Siwarak’s goal. And that was it, the UAE busy but blunt, Thailand holding on for second in the group and automatic qualification. For the first time since 1972, they will contest the knockouts.
The UAE players departed the pitch not so much elated, but they can be satisfied with the eventual outcome. Group winners, the real business begins now.