Mahdi Ali praises players after overcoming jet lag, fervent Saitama crowd, and Japan in World Cup qualifier

UAE shock hosts Japan in Group B opener of third round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, thanks to an Ahmed Khalil double. John McAuley reports from Saitama.

Ahmed Khalil, left, celebrates his and the UAE's second goal in a 2-1 win over Japan at Saitama Stadium 2002 in a 2018 World Cup qualifier on September 1, 2016. Atsushi Tomura / Getty Images

SAITAMA // Mahdi Ali praised his UAE players for their fighting spirit in Thursday’s shock World Cup qualifying victory against Japan, but warned they must regroup quickly for next week’s clash with Australia.

Beginning their Group B campaign against the four-time Asian champions at the Saitmama Stadium 2002, the UAE responded from an early Keisuke Honda goal to triumph 2-1, with Ahmed Khalil scoring both.

Mahdi Ali’s side had to withstand sustained Japanese pressure – television replays showed Takuma Asano’s effort in the 77th minute crossed the line – however the visitors stood strong to record one of their most memorable recent results.

See also:

• Analysis: UAE's road to Russia off to flying start

• Report: UAE shock Japan 2-1

• Pictures: Khalil double leads UAE upset

• Round-up: South Korea, Australia off to winning starts

• Five things we learnt: Khalil a big-game player

With reigning Asian Cup champions Australia up next in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Mahdi Ali urged his victorious side to maintain focus to secure a perfect start to the third and final stage of qualification for Russia 2018.

“It’s a wonderful thing to start this third round with a win away against one of best teams in Asia, against Japan in Japan,” the UAE manager said. “I’m very happy for the players, for their spirit, for their fighting on the pitch for 90 minutes. I congratulate them.

“I’m very happy for this result. I hope it gives us more confidence for the upcoming games. But in the end it’s only one game, we still did not achieve anything. It’s only one step from 10, but we are very proud for this win.”

The UAE, ranked 74th in the world by Fifa and therefore 25 places below Japan, rebounded superbly from Honda’s 11th-minute opener. First, Khalil curled a free kick on 20 minutes past Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa and, nine minutes after half time, he converted casually from the penalty spot following a foul on Ismail Al Hammadi by Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa. It was the Asian Player of the Year ‘s 13th goal in qualifying.

The hosts claimed they should have later had a penalty too, but the officials denied them what appeared to be a certain goal when UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa palmed away Asano’s attempt from behind his line.

Yet Mahdi Ali said the past two months’ worth of training, which took place at specialised camps in Spain, Dubai and Shanghai, had provided the UAE the foundations for a deserved win.

“We prepared for this game for long time, focusing on this match because it was a very important game and a positive result in Japan gives us a boost and good confidence for the other games,” he said. “I’m very happy for my players, they did all I asked from them.

“We knew the Japanese team would press us in their home. I’m very happy for the two goals after conceding early, because the team shows they have the personality. The game was not only against Japan, but also against the travelling and jet lag. We had so many issues with the players. I’m so happy we’ve passed this. Hopefully the next game will be better.”

Vahid Halilhodzic, his opposite number, bemoaned what he perceived to be poor officiating, but said ultimately the blame lay with him.

“Please ask the referee,” he said. “He did not give a foul to us, but gave to the UAE. But in the end, please criticise the head coach, I want to protect my players. I made the wrong choices and we need to train more. The UAE did whatever they could do.

“Although this is a terrible result, I expect the team to play better in future. I need to accept the criticism for myself and continue training my team, because this is not the last game.”

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