They might be the ‘surprise package’ of the 2015 Asian Cup for most observers, yet the UAE has now proved they are resilient when it counts the most by knocking out Japan from the tournament. It took a backs-to-the-wall rearguard defensive effort and dramatic penalty shoot out to be able to clinch the quarter final over a disappointed and disappointing opponent.
Quite simply, UAE got a surprise goal early and then seemed content to mostly defend their lead other than the occasional counter attack. Japan dominated possession and yet time and time again they failed to breakdown the defence in final third or failed to convert numerous cleat cut chances created. Star attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda and forward Shinji Kagawa in particular missed golden opportunities they are normally expected to take.
Two minutes after the kick off Honda curled a right foot shot which was going into the corner of the goal and well saved by keeper Majed Naser. However, overall it was the UAE that opened the brightest, with striker Ali Ahmed Mabkhout causing many problems with his acceleration with the ball taking on and beating defenders.
In the 7th minute Mabkhout again broke free on the right and finished in devastating fashion with a fierce and yet technically wonderful volley from almost 20 metres out to beat goal keeper Eiji Kawashima into the far corner of the net for 1-0. There were wild scenes in the UAE active supporters section and almost stunned silence amongst the Samurai Blue fans including Ultras Nippon. For the rest of the first half, the Japanese team looked flat and only created a couple of more decent chances.
Just after the break UAE had a big opportunity to increase their lead when exciting playmaker no 10 “Omar” Abdulrahman made a sublime chip over the top of the last line of defence into the path of a teammate who failed to properly connect when one-on-one with the goal keeper.
From that point on it was mainly one way traffic as Japan ramped up the pressure and got into some of rhythm. Numerous were chances set up and not taken, and late in the game their fans and large contingent of media became increasingly worried.
Eventually, they were able to breakdown the UAE defences with nine minutes to go when an exquisite one-two with Honda allowed substitute Gaku Shibasaki to put his right footed shot past the keeper for the equaliser. Four minutes later they almost snatched a winner when two close-in attempts were blocked in quick succession.
Extra time followed, and rather than stay positioned in the media tribune it was time to get amongst the active fans on the terraces to better capture the unfolding and impending drama from unique perspectives. On the way down it was also a chance to grab a rather appropriately themed sushi/sashimi pack from one of the numerous food stalls to help sustain the body and mind with a very late finish looming.
It has to be acknowledged that the Japan fans and travelling Ultras Nippon were amazing with their unconditional support through almost continuous chanting with drums accompaniment from 10 minutes before half time right through to a conclusion of the match.
During the next 30 minutes of play, it was once again the Samurai Blue that dominated and UAE seemed to be just barely hanging on for a penalty shoot out opportunity. So many times the reigning champions came close and yet somehow the ball stayed out of the net. Perhaps some variation via more direct options might well have worked better for Japan who at times seem a bit too stuck in their trademark style of build up.
It is often stated in cliché terms that penalty shoot outs are somewhat of a lottery, yet they are an important of our game in knock out competitions and finals. Like the quarter final game played earlier between Iran and Iraq in Canberra more drama was soon to follow.
The first kick was taken by Honda who inexplicably missed way over the bar, and the signs were ominous. After misses by Khamis Esmaeel and then finally Kagawa on to the post, it all came down to an opportunity for substitute Ismail Ahmed and he nailed it for UAE to triumph 5-4 on penalties! Scenes soon followed of jubilation on and off the field, rounded off by victorious players and their fans joining in mutual recognition and traditional song.
At the post game media conference, Mahdi Ali the head coach of UAE revealed that “today I told the players it’s not always that you have to play very nice football to win the game, sometimes you have to play with your heart, with your spirit and today we worked very hard to win this game.”
“As I said football is sometimes not fair it was not fair for us in the Iran game but today it gave us a good taste of it I think we deserved to come to the semi-final.” Madhi said.
Japan coach Javier Aguirre (from Mexico) believed “we did not enough care at the start of the game which caused us to concede a goal. Then, we had to fight for goals”.
“The opponent won, but I think we played the better football and had a more attacking mentality than them. We showed a fighting mentality today. We need to keep this attitude in the future.”
From Japan’s goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima “we gave everything. At the beginning of the first half, they put the pressure on us [and] they were very aggressive. We (conceded) one goal and that made it difficult for us. I think we created many chances. In the end this is football, even if we play well and give everything we (don’t always) get the result.”
“It’s very, very disappointing that we lost by (a) penalty. We couldn’t get the result in this Asian Cup and also the World Cup. These two tournaments give us very big disappointment but we still have to keep going.” Eiji said.
UAE defender Mohanad Salem felt that “playing Japan is never easy. We conceded a goal, but we won the game, that is the important thing. Now that we have reached the semi final, we want to go on and reach the final.”
UAE now meets Australia on Tuesday in the second semi-final and will face an almighty challenge to back up quickly with one day’s less recovery than the host nation. After such a gruelling schedule and tough quarter final, it would be truly remarkable effort to upset the Socceroos in Newcastle.
Iraq faces Korea and the same can be said for the former’s physical condition to be able to thwart the Taeguk Warriors.
It will once again be a privilege to be at both of these games on the road to the final next Saturday in Sydney. One thing that is certain there will much more drama to play out in a tournament that has already stamped itself as one of the greatest in the history of the Asian football.
You can follow Pablo via Twitter @PabloFootball
More pictures from yesterday’s fascinating clash