LONDON: Having guided your team to the last eight of the Asian Cup, it must seem strange to find yourself on the defensive. But that is the situation Alberto Zaccheroni, right, faced after leading the UAE to a second-round win over Kyrgyzstan.
The hosts were strongly fancied to see off the Central Asians in their knockout clash in Abu Dhabi, but were taken to extra time and the likely drama of penalties when Ahmed Khalil grabbed the winner in the 103rd minute.
The performance added to the impression that the Whites have made the quarterfinals through luck rather than ability. The team has looked far from impressive during the group stage and anything but possible winners overall.
They now face reigning champions Australia — and even the UAE boss admitted they will have their work cut out unless they improve. “I admit that against (Kyrgyzstan) we seemed to struggle with long ball and crosses, and we also had one or two chances to score and secure the game, but we didn’t convert those opportunities,” the Italian former coach of AC Milan and Juventus said.
“We will try to correct all the things that we believe were less positive between now and the quarterfinals. We now have three days to assess our squad and their injuries before we face a strong Australia team.”
Usually when a team reaches the later stages of a big tournament, players and coaches ignore the performance and pretend all is grand — generally with an emphatic declaration that they will win the title.
Zaccheroni’s post-match reaction was anything but bombastic, however. That is not only a pleasant change but also an appreciation that the UAE have been anything but impressive in their march — in fact, more a slow plod — to the last eight.
This is Kyrgyzstan’s first Asian Cup, and they are far from world-beaters. Playing at home with hopes of lighting the trophy on Feb. 1, the UAE should have easily beaten the Central Asian outfit.
Goals from Mirlan Murzaev and a dramatic late equalizer from substitute Tursunali Rustamov canceled out strikes by Khamis Esmaeel and Ali Mabkhouts. On top of that they hit the bar and the post. It took a controversial Khalil spot-kick to win the match, one that left the Central Asians with a bitter taste in the mouth.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee,” Kyrgyzstan coach Aleksandr Krestinin said.
“We leave the tournament with a lot of regrets — we deserved more. It’s our first Asian Cup, but I’m sure it won’t be our last and we will come back stronger.”
There is a sense the UAE cannot play much worse than they have so far, and the hope will be that they can find a good performance in the quarterfinal against the Socceroos. If they are to shock the reigning champions, they will need Khalil to find his scoring boots again.
“Ahmed Khalil is a very good striker, he is one of the best in Asia,” Zaccheroni said of the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“When I took over the UAE team (at the end of 2017), he was injured and had not trained for a long time. He has also been injured many times recently and did not play often for his club.
“Nevertheless, he is a very good player, and I have to say that I rely on him a lot. He does so much for the team.”