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Asian Cup 2019: Knockouts see Saudi Arabia head home while UAE advances to quarter-finals Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Asian Cup 2019: Knockouts see Saudi Arabia head home while UAE advances to quarter-finals

Yuto Nagatomo of Japan and Hatan Bahbri of Saudi Arabia compete for the ball [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 January, 2019

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Host nation UAE advance to the quarter-finals after beating Kyrgyzstan, while Saudi Arabia heads home after losing to Japan.
The Asian Cup knockouts opening round continued on Monday with some crucial moments for the region's national teams. This time it was Saudi Arabia and the host, the United Arab Emirates, who faced the reality of Asian football.

The Saudis, led by their star player that was absent in the loss to Qatar, Salem Al-Dawsri, planned to break Japan's defence by their usual 4-1-4-1 formation with Fahad Al-Muwallad as a 'false 9' striker. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi hasn't changed his regular line up from the group stage, and unfortunately for him, it left its mark.

The Japanese, not a thrilling side themselves, played their durable 4-2-3-1 formation and attacked the Saudis again and again, finding the midfield and defence unprepared to fight for their spots.

This was exactly the way the Japanese scored their only goal that sealed the encounter and sent the Saudis home.

A corner by Gaku Shibakasi found the head of Takehiro Tomiyasu, the tallest player in the Samurais, who was almost totally free near the 5-metre box and headed home the ball to the opposite direction of Mohamed Al-Owais, who couldn't do a thing on goal.

This was it. Since then the Saudis tried various tactics but were left helpless in front of an extremely organised Japanese defence, led by Japan's captain, Maya Yoshida, Southampton's defender.

Hattan Bahbri tried, Yihia Al-Shehri entered and created a different atmosphere, but it wasn't enough. Despite fielding the best Saudi players in the market and with 70 percent of ball, the Green Falcons simply couldn't produce a single move throughout the whole 90 minutes.

"We chose the best players who deserved to represent the team," Pizzi said in the press conference after the match.

"I am satisfied with how they performed during the tournament and what they sought to apply in the games in terms of technical plans and strategies,” he concluded.

With the end of the road for Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup, it is likely that the coach will not continue, but an official announcement is yet to be released.

The second match of the day with a Middle Eastern team saw the likes of the UAE playing Kyrgyzstan at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

It took the hosts 14 minutes to get on the scoresheet with a header by Kahmees Esmaeel. 

But in the 25th minute, Kyrgyzstan's Mirlan Murzaev scored making it 1-1.

In the second half, the Emiratis went up again through Ali Mabkhout, after an assist by Amer Abdulrahman. But the Kyrgyz team wasn't ready to give up. In the 91st minute Tursunaly Rustamov scored the shocking equaliser. It was 2-2 and the teams went into extra time.

There, Mabkhout was again in the heart of things. First, he missed horrifically a comfortable one-on-one with the Kyrgyz keeper but then was able to get a dubious call from the ref for a foul on him inside the box. Substitute Ahmed Khalil, exactly like in the first game of the competition, took responsibility and scored from the spot: 3-2 to the Emirates, but the central Asian rivals were still on the hunt for goals.

In the last attacking play they almost equalised for the third time that night, but the last kick could not break the Emirati advantage, and the hosts are through to the quarter-finals. There, they will play Australia, who have beaten Uzbekistan in penalties.

UAE's advancement to the quarter finals means that each of the last five Asian Cup tournaments have seen a host nation appear in the last eight.

It wasn't the best day for the Gulf countries in the Asian Cup, as everything is ready for Qatar against Iraq and Bahrain against South Korea, in order to complete the quarter-finals bracket. 

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.

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