UAE went top of Group A with four points from two games despite a hairy start in Abu Dhabi
Al Jazira stars Ali Mabkhout and Khalfan Mubarak scored classy goals as the UAE thumped India 2-0 in a thrilling Asian Cup encounter at a packed Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The much-anticipated match lived up to its billing with an action-packed entertainer that saw the UAE climb to the top of Group A with four points. Before the match some 43,000 Emirati and Indian fans sang national anthems ‘Ishy Bilady’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana’ with equal fervour.
It was a pleasing sight as there was no evident ‘home’ or ‘away’ seating and both sets of fans sat together.
There was also a little history created with CONCACAF referees officiated in an Asian Cup match for the first time. Cesar Ramos and his compatriots Miguel Hernandez and Alberto Morin performed their duties under an exchange programme with the AFC.
It was a nervy start from the UAE. It could be the aftereffects of the 1-1 draw to Bahrain, fear of failure, pure pressure or just the atmosphere.
The Indians, on the other hand, were sensational.
Udanta Singh challenged the UAE backline, skipper Sunil Chhetri and Muhammad Ashique combo tormented keeper Khalid Eisa, Anirudh Thapa produced some crispy passes and the back-four was solid with Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan at the heart of defence.
In the 12th minute, the visitors had the first real chance of the half as Chhetri set Ashique away with the ball but his shot was parried away by Eisa. India had another close attempt but Chhetri’s sharp header from Thapa’s cross was once more saved by the dependable Eisa.
The UAE had some promising moments through Ali Hassan Salmin and Khamis Esmaeel but both the ‘Whites’ shot went wide.
Mabkhout wasted at least two clear scoring opportunities. The UAE made up for lack of confidence in front of the goal by keeping possession of the ball.
After lumbering for almost half-an-hour, the UAE got into their rhythm through skipper Ismail Al Hammadi. It was as if they suddenly remembered their game plan.
And eventually they scored. The home team made good with a long ball, which Mabkhout controlled, waited, and rolled on for Khalfan, who slipped through the Indian radar and tapped past the keeper.
It was a memorable moment from the Al Jazira player as he tricked Anas, wrong-footed him and calmly finished as the stadium erupted.
The Indians were unfortunate not to equalise immediately. A long goal kick from keeper Gurpreet Singh went through the UAE defence to Chhetri and he beat Eisa but the delivery missed the far post by a whisker.
In search of a goal, Jeje Lalpekhula was unleashed in the second half and the Chennaiyin striker immediately had an attempt on target. Later Jeje and Chhetri combined to set one for Udanta but the winger’s shot hit the crossbar and went out.
And in the 74th minute, the UAE’s Hammadi nutmegged right-back Pritam Kottal only to find the post.
With five minutes left, Ismail Matar with a protective mask joined the party. And just before the final hooter, Mabkhout made it 2-0 with a cool finish. The UAE had a shaky start but a solid finish to earn a memorable win.
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