The AFC Asian Cup 2019 got off to an underwhelming start as hosts United Arab Emirates and Bahrain played out a 1-1 draw at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
Mohamed Al Romaihi stunned the packed home crowd by launching Bahrain into the lead in the 78th minute, but the Emiratis found a way back through their veteran forward Ahmed Khalil with barely any time left on the clock!
Here are FOX Sports Asia’s five talking points from the match.
1) AFC Asian Cup 2019 opens with a spectacle!
The expanded Asian Cup, the biggest yet, got off to a spectacular start — at least off the field! UAE, the host nation, enticed the thousands of spectators at the sprawling venue as well as millions watching from home on the television with a vibrant display of the Emirates’ culture at the Zayed Sports City Stadium.
The 13-minute show titled Zanaha Zayed saw Emirati singing sensations Hussain Al Jassmi, Balqees Ahmed Fathi and Eida Al Menhali headlining the gala, performances from around 600 experts from around the globe, traditional drummers and Ayalla dancers — all unfolding around a huge replica of the brand new AFC Asian Cup trophy!
2) Surprise as both UAE and Bahrain drop star names.
UAE🇦🇪 and Bahrain🇧🇭 are both missing top stars! 😱😱😱
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) January 5, 2019
UAE’s Ahmed Khalil and Bahrain’s Abdulla Yusuf Helal were touted to lead the attacks for their respective countries on Saturday, but the Asian Cup 2019 threw an early surprise when both the stars failed to make it to their team’s starting 11s in the tournament opener.
Bahrain were hoping Yusuf will carry into the tournament the scintillating form he has been on for Czech top division side Bohemians 1905 where he has scored five and provided three assists in 15 appearances for the club this season earning him a move to league leaders SK Slavia Praha only the other day.
Meanwhile, veteran Khalil, who was hoping to make his 100th international appearance, also found himself sitting on the bench at the kickoff! Both the players were introduced later in the 81st minute and while one went home with a goal, the other could only think of what could have been!
3) Same old problems for Zaccheroni’s men
UAE went into the tournament with a problem of not scoring enough goals. And that remained to be the issue as they faced Bahrain in Abu Dhabi as well. Despite having close to 60 per cent possession in the first half, UAE barely threatened apart from an Ismail Al Hammadi effort in the sixth minute.
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) January 5, 2019
It is safe to say that Zaccheroni, who led Japan to the Asian Cup title in 2011, hasn’t had UAE firing after taking over as the manager with the team netting only 11 goals in 17 matches under his charge and recording just four wins despite reaching the final of the 23rd Arabian Gulf Cup .
Their inability to break down the Bahrain defence was evident throughout the match and they were lacking in ideas leaving one to wonder whether the presence of a curly-haired midfielder could have made all the difference. The Italian tactician must find a solution for his problems, and fast, if UAE are to stand a chance to progress far in the competition.
4) Goalkeeper Eisa continues his heroics from the FIFA Club World Cup
UAE shotstopper Khalid Eisa continued his fine form between the sticks as he once again saved his team’s blushes despite being the busier of the two goalkeepers during the evening. His best moment in the game came in the 52nd minute with a double save first to deny Ali Madan and then Al-Romaihi from the follow-up.
The 29-year-old was one of the standout stars of the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup that UAE hosted last month emerging twice as Al Ain FC’s shootout hero against New Zealand’s Team Wellington and Copa Libertadores champions River Plate. He was also seen making save after save in the final against Real Madrid as Al Ain settled for a runners-up spot.
5) Khalil has the last laugh
Coming on in the 81st minute of the game with UAE desperately needing some inspiration, Khalil gave his team exactly that as he lifted the players around him. Losing the opening match when your nation hosts the Asian Cup might not have been a good way to celebrate his 100th cap, and Khalil looked determined to change his team’s fortunes.
And the opportunity presented itself when the referee pointed to the spot with just three minutes remaining of the game. Though the decision from the official, who deemed Bahrain’s Mohammed Marhoon to have handled the ball inside the box, was debatable, the outcome of the penalty was never in doubt as the former Asian Footballer of the Year stepped up to take it.
Bahrain still have plenty of positives to take from the match while UAE and Zaccheroni will be relieved with the point and could only wish for things to improve when they face India on January 10.