Ali Mabkhout was once again on target as the UAE beat Australia 1-0 to advance into the semifinals of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Friday.
The host nation's title dreams were kept alive through a united team effort as the UAE bulwark withstood Australian onslaught and Mabkhout, the soloist, created an opportunity to net his fourth goal of the tournament.
Plaudits must also go to Italian tactician Alberto Zaccheroni, who once again picked a winning formation. The UAE without injured Khalifa Mubarak and Khamis Esmaeel out with suspension added Walid Abbas to the defence platoon.
With Ali Hassan, Fares Juma, Ismail Ahmed, Mohamed Ahmad and Bandar Mohamed in the backline the idea was clear - frustrate the 'Socceroos' and hit back on counter attack.
Early on the UAE succeeded in blocking a barrage of attempts from strikers Apostolos Giannou, Jamie Maclaren and Trent Sainsbury. All the chances were thwarted from close range but the UAE defence looked solid in each encounter.
And when Giannou once got through the defenders, keeper Khalid Eisa was up to the task.
However, there was further injury setback for the UAE as defender Mohamed Ahmad had to be substituted by Khalifa Al Hammadi after just 18 minutes.
Goaded by legions of fans, there was undeniable intent with which the UAE played. And going forward, the 'Whites' were sharp with their passes and positive in their approach.
Striker Ismail Matar and winger Ismail Al Hammadi created sublime moves. As clock ticked by Bandar played more as a floater and along with Ismail Al Hammadi fed crosses to Mabkhout inside the Australian box but Al Jazira talisman missed clear opportunities to head home an opening goal.
Towards the end of the half, Australia pushed men forward and dominated. Giannou and Maclaren had chances but were well bottled by the 'Whites'. And just before break, Mabkhout failed to net from Matar's cross from the right.
Soon after the restart, Matar was replaced by Mohammed Abdulrahman and Al Ain midfielder's inclusion raised tempo.
As game grew older, more box-to-box forays started. Both teams were desperate but defenders and keepers were resolute. It was evident that the only way a goal would happen was through a slip or an individual brilliance.
In 60 minutes, Ismail Al Hammadi was past number of yellow shirts but lost control and at other end Mathew Leckie netted but was ruled offside. A goal was surely in the air.
And finally in 68 minutes Mabkhout made amends for all those missed chances. It was a defensive blunder as Australian defender Milos Degenek made a back pass to his keeper Mathew Ryan but Mabkhout stole the ball and scored his ninth of all the Cup tournaments.
Australia introduced their ace striker Awer Mabil and pushed with all might but couldn't level. And at the end, some 25,000 fans celebrated as player fell spent on the grass. The 'Whites' gave everything on the pitch and will now play Qatar in the semifinals at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday (6pm).
By Ashwani Kumar
Copyright © 2019 Khaleej Times. All Rights Reserved.