UAE hit top gear in opening qualifier on the road to Russia 2018
Ahmed Khalil floated his penalty down the centre of the goal, just like Omar Abdulrahman did last year, and the Saitama Stadium 2002 fell silent for the very first time.
A Panenka penalty, the second against Japan in recent memory, gave the UAE a second goal, a 2-1 lead in this already crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier, a lead they refused to surrender seemingly against all odds.
Three precious points in the Group B opener to kick-start the final qualification round on the road to Russia, a sumptuous victory to set in motion what they hope will be the realisation of a long-held dream.
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The UAE withstood the onslaught, withstood a trembling Saitama Stadium and carved enough chances to suggest that, ultimately, they belong at a second World Cup.
Japan, qualification specialists with appearances at the past five global finals, were dominant and at times dynamic. But the UAE remained dogged and determined in their quest for a shock triumph.
Keisuke Honda had opened the scoring as early as the 11th minute, to indicate the Gulf opponents would be in for a long night. The AC Milan midfielder, undeniably his team’s star attraction, found space in the UAE penalty area to nod home Hiroshi Kiyotake’s free kick. Goalkeeper Khalid Essa flailed to his right, but he could not prevent the ball from nestling in the net.
The home support, numbering nearly 60,000 and forever chanting, singing and bouncing, an attack on the senses and another obstacle for the UAE to overcome, reacted as expected, amping up the noise and ramping up the pressure on Mahdi Ali’s side.
Those giant flags, depicting the “Blue Samurai” or the country’s colours, were flung to and fro behind the home goal.
Yet the UAE were back level within nine minutes. Khalil had earlier skewed a free kick hopelessly high and wide, but given another attempt, the side’s captain curled the ball high into the Japan goal.
He wheeled away in celebration, soon mobbed by teammates, the Asian Player of the Year offering another endorsement of his continental calibre.
Not long after, the UAE survived another scare, when Honda’s header was palmed away by Essa and Shinji Kagawa stumbled to place the rebound wide of the post. His night was about to get worse.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder represents the closest rival to Honda in terms of profile in Japan football, but his halo slipped a little more eight minutes into the second half. This time, Kagawa tripped Ismail Al Hammadi in the Japanese penalty area, leaving Khalil to beat goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa from 12 yards.
Khalil chipped deftly into the middle of the goal, a carbon copy of teammate Abdulrahman, whose audacious Panenka penalty during the quarter-final shoot-out at the 2015 Asian Cup quickly became a social media sensation.
No wonder the Al Ain playmaker was roundly booed when the line-ups were read out pre-match.
Khalil will clearly be in for the same treatment, yet he seemed oblivious to the fact as his colleague swarmed around him in celebration. He had a 13th goal in nine qualifying matches. Only then did the ground go quiet.
The Japanese fans then resolved to spur on their team, to help haul them level and eventually towards the expected win. Just before the hour, Kiyotake somehow failed to convert a low cross with the goal at his mercy, then Shinji Okazaki, a Premier League champion with Leicester City, headed against the crossbar.
Buoyed by the backlash to the penalty, the crowd willed Japan forward. However, the rallying turned to rancour 13 minutes from time, once Takuma Asano’s effort had been clawed away by Essa when it appeared to have crossed his line. Replays confirmed the Japanese should have had their equaliser.
From there, the UAE closed ranks and protected their lead, where Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem were titanic. The UAE only occasionally finding a release through the always-assured Abdulrahman. At one point, his flick past two opponents in the corner of the opposition half drew a collective gasp from spectators and the many crammed inside the media tribune.
The final whistle took away the breath, too, when the referee blew and the UAE celebrated an extraordinary success. The Saitama Stadium emptied fast, but for a small band of away supporters, who serenaded the victors as their heroes trooped towards them to reciprocate the appreciation.
The UAE are off and running on the long path to World Cup 2018. A remarkable start as the dream inches ever closer.
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Published: September 1, 2016 04:00 AM