It was at times frantic and all-too frenetic, but the UAE survived an Indian onslaught to breathe life back into their Asian Cup campaign.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s men, under pressure and under threat of an embarrassing early exit, rebounded from their opening draw to Bahrain with a nervy 2-0 victory on Thursday night in Abu Dhabi.
Zayed Sports City Stadium, filled late but almost to capacity, swayed to the sound of India's fervent support, who sang and chanted and bounced. They so nearly celebrated a win.
However, Khalfan Mubarak’s superb solo goal three minutes from half-time, allied with Ali Mabkhout's finish at the death, saw off valiant opponents. It sealed for their team the narrowest of triumphs, reinvigorating the hosts as they vaulted to the top of Group A. A draw against Thailand on Monday would secure safe passage to the knockout stages.
It may have even prolonged Zaccheroni’s tenure.
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Until Mubarak landed the opening blow, it had been all India. One of the tournament’s surprise packages thus far – they opened their campaign with a shock 4-1 victory against Thailand – in the early stages Stephen Constantine’s energetic side swarmed over the UAE.
Eight minutes in, defender Sandesh headed way off target from a corner, although he looked to have shoved marker Khalifa Mubarak illegally to gain a yard of space.
Three minutes later, a loose pass from Khamis Esmail put Ali Salmeen in trouble in the middle of the park, allowing India captain Sunil Chhetri to free Ashique Kuruniyan through on goal. Somehow, he was thwarted by Khalid Essa’s fine save. The UAE were ragged.
They should have been 1-0 down on 23 minutes. Anirudh Thapa’s arching cross found Chhetri at the back post, only for the striker to head straight at Essa. Chhetri, the second-highest active goalscoer in international football and sandwiched between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi no less, was denied a 68th international goal.
Having only just survived, the UAE began to thrive. Salmeen’s fierce drive was deflected over the India crossbar; from the corner, Kalfan Mubarak’s shot found the side-netting when he probably should have squared.
Yet the playmaker atoned soon after. With half-time fast approaching, Sandesh and fellow defender Anas Edathodika hesitated under Esmail’s hopeful long ball to allow Mabkhout to collect. The Al Jazira striker, until that point wildly off colour, played in club colleague Mubarak, who shimmied beyond a rival before lifting a beautiful effort into the far top corner. The UAE bench erupted in celebration.
Their delight was nearly tempered seconds later. Once more, Chhetri escaped the UAE backline, but this time pulled his shot the wrong side of the home side’s post. There were inches in it; Essa was rooted to his spot.
Ten minutes after the interval, India looked set to draw level. Exchanging a smart one-two with Chhetri, Udanta Singh fired his shot off the UAE crossbar. Replays showed Khalifa Mubarak may have got a vital nick to divert it onto the woodwork.
Fifteen minutes from time, the UAE struck a post. Khalfan Mubarak found Ismail Al Hammadi with a nice pass, and the hosts’ captain toe-poked his shot off the upright.
Having just about escaped, India's hopes were extinguished one minute from time. Mabkhout controlled a pass over the top, and calmly side-footed home. The 2015 Asian Cup topscorer was finally off the mark.
So, too, the UAE, whose clean sheet was saved in injury-time after Sandesh had glanced a free-like onto the crossbar. India could feel aggrieved; the UAE relieved. Belatedly, and somewhat fortuitously, their Asian Cup campaign is up and running.