By Samindra Kunti in Doha
January 18 – Palestine drew 1-1 against ten-man United Arab Emirates to retain hopes of qualifying for the second round for the first time, but will be left to rue what could have been with striker Oday Dabbagh and the frontline not capitalising on a series of chances.
Palestine coach Makram Daboub shook up his starting XI, picking Mohammed Saleh over Yaser Hamed, who disappointed against Iran, and introducing star striker Dabbagh, who plays for Charleroi in Belgium.
For the UAE, Paulo Bento changed his side in three positions with the Al Wasl trio of Khaled Al Dhanhani, Majid Rashid and Ali Saleh all starting.
The Portuguese manager had worried his team could get overwhelmed by the partisan support for Palestine and he was not wrong.
The Palestinian players applauded the crowd before kickoff and chants of ‘Free free Palestine’ thundered around the stadium all night.
When his team attacked, they were jeered. It was an emotional night amid the backdrop of war in Gaza. But whereas Palestine were overwhelmed by the circumstances in their opening match they demonstrated focus against the United Arab Emirates, getting the better chances in the opening stages.
Zaid Qunbar headed a ball dangerously toward the top-left corner to be denied by the fingertips of Emirati goalkeeper Khalid Eisa, who easily collected Mahmout Warda’s low attempt that lacked pace in the 11th minute, but it was the UAE who struck first.
In the 23rd minute, Ali Saleh whipped in a great cross from the right and at the far post, Sultan Adil rose above Musab Al Battat to bury it, 1-0.
If the goal had come somewhat against the run of play, the UAE seized the initiative and gained control, but in football, the pendulum can swing fast and Palestine claimed a penalty when Khalifa Al Hammadi dragged Dabbagh to the ground.
The referee waved the protests away with the entire stadium remonstrating for a spot kick and following an on-field review, he pointed to the spot and red-carded Al Hammadi as it was deemed a goal-scoring opportunity.
Dabbagh fell to his knees in prayer and pandemonium ensued in the stands, a deafening noise ringing around the Al Janoub.
This was the moment the entire night had build-up to, but in another twist, it didn’t quite arrive as Eisa dived to his right to save Tamer Seyam’s penalty.
Palestine kept up the pressure and nearly equalised on the stroke of half-time when Seyam latched on to a cross, getting a toe to the ball a couple of yards out, but the Emirate defense scrambled the ball off the line. This was quickly becoming a siege with Dabbagh’s header dying on the roof of the net. The Charleroi striker was tormenting the United Arab Emirates, who got to half-time hanging on.
After the break, Bento’s team gave a sign of life when Saleh threatened from a tight angle, but with Palestine pressing, riding the wave of energy and passion from the stands, it was only a matter of time before Daboub’s men equalised. In the 50th minute Bader Nasser headed the ball into his own net, 1-1.
Building on the momentum, Palestine retained possession and attacked down the wings, swinging in crosses. In the stands, supporters kept up the ‘Free, Palestine’ chant. At the hour mark, they almost took the lead with a downward header from Gazan defender Saleh.
Bento brought fresh legs to keep his team’s energy levels up in the last 30 minutes.
Palestine’s arial threat remained a constant menace and Eisa tipped over another Dabbagh powerful as with the UAE increasingly struggling to close down the space on the flanks. The Belgium-based forward again failed to pull the trigger from a few metres out in the 72nd minute. Ever a scourge for the Emirati rearguard, Dabbagh dispatched a daisy cutter that almost kissed the post. He deserved a goal, much like his team deserved a winner – but his imprecision cost the Palestinians.
Time was painfully running out for Palestine to find a winner. Their crosses became less dangerous and the intensity dropped.
With ten minutes of injury time added, the fans once again rallied behind Palestine, but they could not muster a final push. It was a frustrating end to an intense match in an emotional stadium. Palestine should have won. They get a chance to make amends against Hong Kong and are still in with a chance of qualifying directly for the last 16 if Iran beat the UAE.
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