ABU DHABI: Hosts UAE salvaged a controversial 1-1 draw in their Asian Cup curtain-raiser against Bahrain on Saturday night.
Substitute Ahmed Khalil smashed home a late penalty harshly awarded for a handball after Mohamed Alromaihi had given Bahrain a shock lead in Abu Dhabi.
The Emirates scored after just 14 seconds when the two teams met at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia but there was little danger of that in what proved to be a scruffy and forgettable first half.
UAE’s Ismail Alhammadi fired tamely at goalkeeper Sayed Alawi after six minutes before Ali Mabkhout blazed over.
Bahrain went close just before halftime when Komail Alaswad fizzed a free kick just over the bar.
The home side’s profligacy continued as Mabkhout lashed wide from point-blank range.
It was a scrappy affair at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in ABu Dhabi. (AFP)
That wastefulness came back to haunt the UAE after 78 minutes when Alromaihi bundled home after his initial header appeared to have crossed the line.
Sami Alhusaini almost equalized five minutes from time, only for Alawi to pull off a stunning block.
But Jordanian referee Adham Makhadmeh pointed to the spot five minutes from time for what appeared to be an unintentional handball to offer the hosts a lifeline.
Khalil, appearing in his 100th international, stepped up to rifle the spot kick into the top corner and send a partisan crowd wild.
UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni steered Japan to the continental title in 2011, but his Emirates side have flat-lined in the run-up to this year’s competition, scoring just 10 goals in 18 games under the Italian.
His hopes of going deep into the tournament have not been helped by the loss of mop-top talisman Omar Abdulrahman through injury.
The Emiratis were beaten finalists the last time the country hosted the Asian Cup in 1996, losing on penalties to Saudi Arabia.
They take on India and Thailand in their next two Group A fixtures but will need to improve drastically if they have designs on emulating their run to the last four at the last tournament in Australia where they stunned holders Japan in the quarterfinals.