Mahdi Ali celebrated leading the UAE to their highest Asian Cup finish on foreign soil by revealing he had drummed into his players the importance of the third-place play-off for the number of rewards it could bring.
As is so often the case with this fixture, the UAE’s 3-2 win over Iraq delivered an entertaining match that was understandably lacking the edge or intensity of a genuinely competitive clash.
“I spoke to the players before the match and said that they have to help their teammate Ali Mabkhout remain top scorer and also to help Omar Abdulrahman win the best player of the tournament award,” he said.
“Of course this is on top of finishing the competition on a high note by finishing third.”
The UAE took the lead on 16 minutes through a goal set up by Abdulrahman and finished from close range by Ahmed Khalil.
“We started the match the way we had planned and succeeded in getting an early goal,” Mahdi Ali said. “After that, some of the players felt tired and we missed many chances.”
Costly lapses in the UAE defence allowed Iraq to lead 2-1 at half time through goals by Waleed Salim and Amjad Kalaf.
“I was very angry at half time and I don’t want to say in detail what I told the players,” Mahdi Ali said.
“But I did tell them that they have to overturn the result in the first 15 minutes of the second half. I said I’d like to see my team again, that was not my team.”
The response was almost immediate. In the 51st minute Abdulrahman delivered a perfectly judged lofted pass over the top of the Iraqi defence for Khalil to equalise and reach four goals for the competition, the same as strike partner Ai Mabkhout.
Four minutes later, Mabkhout won and converted the penalty that won the match for the UAE, leaving him on five goals for the tournament, with Iraqi defender Ahmad Ibrahim, who had hauled down Mabkhout, sent off for a professional foul.
Unless an extraordinary sequence of scoring takes place at tomorrow’s final, Mabkhout will win the top scorer of the tournament award to add to the one he won at November’s Gulf Cup of Nations in Saudi Arabia.
Mahdi Ali acknowledged that Khalil’s double strike and the penalty award had given him a dilemma.
“I had instructed before the match that if we get a penalty then Mabkhout will take it, if still on the pitch,” he said. “But after Khalil scored twice it was hard to decide who should take it. The players carried out the instructions and, in any case, I’m happy for both players.”
The UAE coach also revealed what he had spoken about with Fifa president Sepp Blatter at the medals award ceremony after the match.
“He congratulated me on finishing third and on the progress seen by the UAE national team in recent years,” said Mahdi Ali. “He also said that he keeps an eye on Emirati football and is well aware of the improvement’s it has seen in general.”
Despite overseeing the UAE’s finest achievement on the continental stage in 19 years and finest outside the UAE, Mahdi Ali was still disappointed about the outcome of the semi-final.
“We wanted to make the supporters happy and get to the final,” he said. “But we hit a very strong team [Australia] that managed to score two very quick goals. It was difficult to recover, but I thank the players for their second-half performance in that match.”
Mahdi Ali, who revealed he has not signed a new deal with the UAE FA, said that the UAE are closing the gap on Asia’s traditional powers.
“I don’t think there is a big difference between us and teams like Japan, South Korea and Australia,” he said. “We realise that there is room for improvement and we know fully well that we need to keep working hard to continue our progress.”
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