CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA // UAE coach Mahdi Ali insists he is pleased with his team’s performance against Bahrain despite failing to hit the heights they displayed in their opening Asian Cup victory over Qatar.
The UAE laboured to a 2-1 victory over a defiant Bahrain side on Thursday, despite a blistering start at Canberra Stadium. After Bahrain equalised midway through the first-half, the Emiratis needed a second-half own goal to secure the points.
The result means the UAE have reached the knockout stages of the Asian Cup for the first time since 1996. Iran also qualified from Group C with their 1-0 victory over Qatar, and the game in Brisbane on Monday between the two sides will decide the order in which they progress to the quarter-finals.
[ Read more: UAE’s Omar Abdulrahman is taking hits in stride at Asian Cup ]
The UAE needed only 14 seconds to take the lead. Omar Abdulrahman clipped a brilliant pass over the Bahrain defence and into the path of Ali Mabkhout. The striker took one touch before going past the goalkeeper and finishing from a tight angle. It was his tournament-high third goal.
The lead should have settled the Emiratis but they allowed Bahrain back into the match.
“This game was a bit tough for us,” admitted UAE coach Mahdi Ali. “It reminds me of our game against Bahrain in the  Gulf Cup. Almost the same thing happened. We led 1-0, they scored and at the end of the match we scored again.”
This was a different Bahrain to the one that played so poorly in November’s Gulf Cup in Riyadh, where they failed to score a single goal. Marjan Eid’s team had no choice but to go all-out attack, and in the ninth minute Jaycee John attempted an ambitious overhead kick that sailed over the bar. It was sign of things to come.
He put away the next cross he saw, on 26 minutes, by out-jumping the UAE defence.
On 33 minutes the UAE almost retook the lead with a carbon copy of their first goal, but Mabkhout’s shot was cleared off the line.
“There were a lot of dangerous crosses against us in the first half, but in the second half we dealt with that danger,” Mahdi Ali said. “We didn’t see any dangerous balls against us. We hope to learn from these details so we can avoid these negative things in the coming matches.”
The second half began slowly. On 60 minutes Omar Abdulrahman curled over a free-kick after Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Abbas was penalised for picking up a back-pass.
When the breakthrough came it was from an unexpected source. Amer Abdulrahman whipped in a curling free-kick which was headed past his own keeper by Bahrain captain Mohammed Hussain in the 74th minute.
Bahrain continued to test the UAE defence with crosses aimed at John, but it was the UAE who came closest when Mabkhout missed an easy header from Omar Abdulrahman’s exquisite cross.
Mahdi Ali was was keen not to compare this performance to the dominant one against Qatar in the opening match.
“Each game has its own conditions and circumstances; it’s not easy to compare games,” he said. “It was a tough game, but the most important thing is that we got the three points. This will relax the pressure of us for the next game against Iran. We will try and keep going with the same mentality.”
The coach said the decision to partner Mohammed Ahmed with Hamdan Al Kamali in the centre of defence was a case of squad rotation.
“Mohaned Salem wasn’t injured, just some muscle aches but nothing that would have stopped him from starting,” Mahdi Ali said. “But we preferred to do some rotation.”
Teams have three days off between matches, “and we need all the players for the coming matches”, the coach added. “The players are all of the same standard. This was a chance to give others a chance and get them ready for the coming matches in case they are called on.”
Ahmed, the Al Ain defender, said the players are comfortable with the Mahdi Ali’s choices.
“I respect every member of the team, and coach Mahdi has his options,” he said. “If he chooses a player, they will do their best. We are a group. When Hamdan Al Kamali started the last match I was his biggest supporter, and today Mohaned was my biggest supporter. The most important thing is to win.”
Bahrain v UAE report card
A strangely subdued first-half performance after a blistering start. There will be questions about the form of Hamdan Al Kamali, which allowed the Bahrain scorer many opportunities in the air. Recovered in the second half to dominate possession and could have won more easily if Ali Mabkhout had not missed an easy chance near the end.
Big improvement on recent performances for Marjan Eid’s men. Aerial threats and closing down the UAE midfield gave them a chance in the first half. The UAE’s superior ball retention, and the unfortunate own goal, which ultimately proved decisive.
Omar Abdulrahman One of the players of the tournament despite the seven-week injury lay-off. The pass for Mabkhout’s opener was a delight and, despite some rough challenges and constant attention by the Bahrain players, was the most influential player on the pitch again.
Mohammed Hussain Perhaps a bit harsh on the Bahrain captain, but the defence should have been more alert on Mabkhout’s 14-second goal, and later headed into his own net to give victory to the UAE.
Getting out of the group is Step 1 to the ultimate goal of a semi-finals appearance. The performance did not hit the heights of the one against Qatar, but Mahdi Ali, below, will be pleased that this wake-up call of sorts came now.
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