Januaray 9 - 15, 2019

Gulf Weekly Kristian Harrison
By Kristian Harrison


Bahrain were denied a stunning victory in the opening match of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup as hosts UAE were rescued at the death by a farcical penalty.

Substitute Ahmed Khalil smashed home the 88th-minute spot-kick harshly awarded for a handball after Mohamed Alromaihi had given Bahrain a shock lead in Abu Dhabi.

Bahrain coach Miroslav Soukup kept his counsel after the late setback, refusing to criticise the referee. “You could maybe say it was hard luck,” said the Czech. “I didn’t see it and I haven’t seen the video, but the players were in the locker room saying it wasn’t a deliberate handball - so it’s bad luck.”

Earlier, the expanded Asian Cup, the biggest yet, got off to a spectacular start off the field. The hosts 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 more than 600 global entertainers, traditional drummers and Ayalla dancers — all unfolding around a huge replica of the new Asian Cup trophy.

Once the action started, things were significantly less lively. The UAE scored after just 14 seconds when the two teams met at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, but there was little danger of a repeat in a scruffy first half.

Ismail Alhammadi fired tamely at Bahraini goalkeeper Sayed Alawi after six minutes before Ali Mabkhout blazed wildly 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. That wastefulness came back to haunt the UAE after 78 minutes when Alromaihi bundled home after his initial header had alreadyappeared to have crossed the line. Sami Alhusaini almost equalised five minutes from time, only for Alawi to pull off a stunning block.

However, the equaliser finally came after Jordanian referee Adham Makhadmeh pointed to the spot five minutes from time for what was clearly an unintentional handball to offer the hosts a lifeline.

Khalil, appearing in his 100th international, displayed nerves of steel as he stepped up to rifle the spot kick into the top corner and send the raucous crowd of 33,000 wild.

UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni said: “The crowd was like the 12th man for us, so I wish we could have given them the victory.

“But we will have to take this lesson and move on. The important thing is to evolve gradually from one game to the next and grow into the tournament.

Zaccheroni steered Japan to the continental title in 2011, but his Emirates side has flat-lined in the run-up to this year’s competition, scoring just 10 goals in 18 games under the Italian.

They will need to improve if they have designs on emulating their run to the last four in 2015 when they stunned holders Japan in the quarter-finals.

As for Bahrain, their hopes of going deeper into the tournament will have received a huge boost of confidence with this result. They deserved victory against the toughest team in the group, so similar performances in upcoming matches against Thailand and India should provide a huge opportunity to progress as one of the top two teams in the group.

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