The Asian Cup knockouts opening round has continued on Monday with some crucial moments for the region’s national teams. This time it was Saudi Arabia and the host - the United Arab Emirates - that has faced the reality of Asian football.
The Saudis, led by their star player that was absent in the loss to Qatar, Salem Al-Dawsri, has planned to break Japan’s defence by their usual 4-1-4-1 formation with Fahad Al-Muwallad as a ‘false 9’ striker. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi hasn’t changed his regular line up from the group stage, and unfortunately for him, it left the mark.
The Japanese, not a thrilling side themselves, played their durable 4-2-3-1 formation and attacked the Saudis again & again, finding the midfield and defence unprepared to fight for their spots. This was exactly the way the Japanese scored their only goal that sealed the encounter and sent the poor Saudis home.
A corner by Gaku Shibakasi has found the head of Takehiro Tomiyasu, the tallest player in the Samurais, who was almost totally free near the 5-meter box and headed home the ball to the opposite direction of Mohamed Al-Owais, who couldn’t do a thing in goal.
This was it. After, the Saudis have tried, passed the ball, even changed the formation few times, threw a real striker in Mohamad Al-Saiari, but they were helpless in front an extremely organised Japanese defence, led by Japan’s captain, Maya Yoshida, Southampton’s defender.
Hattan Bahbri tried, Yihia Al-Shehri entered and created a different atmosphere, but it wasn’t enough. Despite fielding the best Saudi players in the market, despite they had the ball at their feet for almost 70% of the game time, the Green Falcons simply couldn’t produce a single proper football move, throughout the whole 90 minutes.
"We chose the best players who deserved to represent the team”, Pizzi has said in the press conference after the match. “I am satisfied with how they performed during the tournament and what they sought to apply in the games in terms of technical plans and strategies”, he concluded.
With the end of the road for Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup, it is likely that the coach will not continue, but an official announcement is yet to be released.
The second match of the day with a Middle Eastern team saw the likes of the UAE, playing Kyrgyzstan at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
It took the hosts 14 minutes to get on the score-sheet with a header by Kahmis Esmaeel. But the Kyrgyz players weren’t there as a background at the hosts show. In the 25th minute, they struck in a counter-attack as Mirlan Murzaev went through goalkeeper Khalid Eissa and made it 1-1.
In the second half, the Emiratis went up again through Ali Mabkhout, after an assist by Amer Abdulrahman.
With this goal, Mabkhout has scored eight goals in Asian Cup tournaments. Only Iran’s Ali Daei (14), Korea Republic’s Lee Dong-Gook (10) and Japan’s Naohiro Takahara (9) have scored more in the competition’s history.
But the Kyrgyz team wasn’t ready to give up. On the 91st minute Tursunaly Rustamov scored the shocking equalizer. It was 2-2 and the teams went for extra time.
There, Mabkhout was again in the heart of things. First, he missed horrifically a comfortable one-on-one with the Kyrgyz keeper but then was able to get a dubious call from the ref for a foul on him inside the box. Substitute Ahmed Khalil, exactly like in the first game of the competition, took responsibility and scored from the spot. 3-2 to the Emirates, but the central Asian rivals were still on the hunt for goals.
In the last attacking play they almost equalized for the third time that night, but the last kick couldn’t break the Emirati advantage, and the hosts are through to the quarterfinals. There, they will play Australia, who have beaten Uzbekistan in penalties.
UAE's advancement to the quarter-finals means that each of the last five Asian Cup tournaments have seen a host nation appear in the last eight.
It wasn’t the best day for the Gulf countries in the Asian Cup, as everything is ready for Qatar against Iraq and Bahrain against South Korea, in order to complete the quarterfinals bracket.