January 14 – The United Arab Emirates survived a scare in the opening match of Group C against Hong Kong, courtesy of two match-deciding penalties, as both sides played their part in a thrilling battle for three points.
The Arab side claimed a 3-1 victory after Hong Kong’s defensive frailties ultimately negated their impressive workrate and heart.
The win put pressure on Iran – ahead of their Palestinian tie – to keep pace with their Arabian neighbours as the UAE hit the top of the table.
Coming into the match as heavy favourites, the UAE faced off against the competition’s lowest-ranked side, who have not played an Asian cup game since 1968.
Despite the odds being stacked against them, the Hong Kong players opened with an aggressive high press that caused a wealth of problems for their much fancied opponents, who looked startled by the opening pace of the game.
With all of Hong Kong’s attacking play being funnelled through Brazilian-born winger Everton Camargo, who embodied his side’s startling aggression, they looked eager to capitalise on UAE’s sluggishness inside the first 20 minutes.
As the first Asian Cup game for the entirety of the Hong Kong squad, the source of the team’s work rate and passion was clear to see.
The first of many VAR checks occurred in the 18th minute as a lunge by Hong Kong defender Oliver Gerbig on 19-year-old UAE striker Sultan Adill Alamiri was quickly dismissed by the referee but it gave the eventual winners some much-needed time for a water break.
The Hong Kong press, led by Camargo, continued to force spills in the UAE half as the underdogs looked for an opener, prompting UAE keeper Eisa into action.
But against the run of play, UAE were awarded a penalty after another lengthy VAR check as defender Oliver Gerbig handled a point-blank shot, picking up a yellow card in the process.
Hong Kong manager Jorn Andersen was visibly furious on the sidelines as he watched his side’s impressive opening work rate come undone.
The penalty was coolly converted by 19-year-old striker Sultan Adill Alamiri with a right-footed shot to the bottom left corner, marking his first goal for his country and kickstarting UAE’s tournament.
The goal reignited UAE’s work rate and attacking hunger as they looked to pile on Hong Kong’s tangible disappointment. They were beginning to effectively play around the furious press that they initially struggled with – perhaps a sign of a young team growing into the game.
Despite holding the lead, UAE manager Paulo Bento was seen fuming at his team in the build-up to halftime, recognising they were fortunate to be in front.
With no substitutions made at half time and the pace of the game restored to its early promise, it took just four minutes for Hong Kong to draw level. Midfielder Siu Kwan Chan got on the end of a fantastic Camargo cross, beating defender Zayed Sultan to the ball with a flick of the outside of his boot.
The equaliser fittingly marked the 1000th goal in Asian Cup history since Hong Kong were also the team to score the first ever goal in the competition back in 1956.
Parity lasted only three minutes, however. Making amends for his defensive error, Zayed Sultan regained the lead for his team with a simple finish after a hectic pinball in the Hong Kong box.
Despite again falling behind dishearteningly, Hong Kong still showed plenty of attacking venom, especially with the introduction of 19-year-old substitute Michael Udebuluzor. The youngster added fresh impetus to his side’s attack, bringing a physical presence that certainly shows signs of promise later in the competition.
With both team’s attackers now growing into the game, Hong Kong escaped a seemingly clear penalty in the 71st minute as defender Ngai Hoi Li smashed into an opposition attacker during a ground duel.
It was a massive let off but it ultimately didn’t help the underdogs as victory for the UAE was sealed late on courtesy of yet another penalty, this time converted by substitute Yahya Al Ghassani after the striker was clearly fouled by Hong Kong full back Shinichi Chan in a clumsy challenge.
The goal marked the pinnacle of a great cameo from Al Ghassani, who was a valuable addition to UAE’s attacking efforts late in the game.
Hong Kong’s hopes of a late comeback were extinguished by VAR again getting involved, ruling out youngster Udebuluzor’s tidy finish due to a handball in the build-up.
Speaking after the game, UAE manager Paulo Bento said: “It was a difficult victory against difficult opponents. They were difficult to control, strong in the duels and we had some problems to face in the game, but in general we played a good game for the most part.
“It was important that we scored the second goal immediately after we allowed the equaliser. I think it was a fair victory, maybe the game could have been decided a little bit earlier. Overall we are happy.”
Hong Kong head coach Jorn Andersen said: “It was a good game, first half was really good. Second half, a little less chances but still working hard and we were very unlucky with the VAR. For the first penalty, I don’t think the hand hit the ball but the ball hit the hand and the second penalty I don’t think he touched the player.”
Speaking on conceding so soon after the equaliser, Andersen added: ”We have to be better and improve. UAE are not a bad team, much stronger than us so we have to be aware that they can make goals too.”
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