As Australia seek to win their first ever Asian Cup, and on home soil to boot, it is hard not to think that the realization that it would be the United Arab Emirates and not Japan lining up against them in Tuesday’s semifinal was greeted with at least one or two smiles around the Socceroos camp. Japan have won three of the last four tournaments and were favorite to claim the trophy this time around. They have also had Australia’s number in recent years, beating them in the final last time around in 2011 and losing just once in eight matches since Australia became a member of the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.
After disappointingly finishing second in their group behind South Korea, Australia had looked set for a semifinal clash with their old rivals in Newcastle. Instead, it will be the UAE lining up against the hosts after their dramatic penalty shootout win over Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Co.
Any complacency, though, and a final spot against South Korea could well be snatched away by a UAE team led by the talents of playmaker Omar Abdulrahman.
“We're under no illusion that the game on Tuesday is going to be extremely difficult,” Australia and Bayer Leverkusen forward Robbie Kruse said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “Some people may say we're already in the final, but we're not looking at it that way. We saw the game [UAE vs. Japan], maybe it was an upset but it's still going to be a difficult game. We'll just focus on our game plan, we'll stick to that and hopefully we'll be all right. If we stick to our game plan, the result will be in our favor.”
Indeed in terms of the FIFA rankings, it is 80th place UAE that sit 20 places above Australia. The two nations have never met in a competitive international, with their only previous contest of any kind ending in a goalless draw in Abu Dhabi last October.
Like Australia, the UAE have lost once so far in the Asian Cup, going down 1-0 to Asia’s highest-ranked nation Iran in the group stage. Australia beat China 2-0 in the quarterfinals courtesy of two goals from veteran star Tim Cahill, while the UAE survived a late equalizer in normal time to go on and beat Japan 5-4 on penalties. Ali Ahmed Mabkhout struck an early opening goal in the contest to register his fourth goal of the competition. With Ahmed Kahli having also scored two goals in an opening 4-1 win over Qatar, the UAE carry plenty of attacking threat.
It is Abdulrahman, though, who pulls the strings. The midfielder came to prominence in the 2012 Olympics, after which he had a trial with Manchester City. While still in his home country with Al-Ain, he is thought to once again be courting interest from some big European clubs. On Tuesday, he will doubtless be hoping to make Australia defender Trent Sainsbury eat his words.
“Very tidy on the ball, not the hardest worker and I think we can exploit that,” he said of Abdulrahman, reports The Guardian.
Kickoff time: 4 a.m. EST
TV channel: One World Sports