ABU DHABI (AFP) – Hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE) survived a scare to salvage a controversial 1-1 draw in their Asian Cup curtain-raiser against Bahrain on Saturday night.
Substitute Ahmed Khalil smashed home a late penalty harshly awarded for a handball after Mohamed Alromaihi had given Bahrain a shock lead in Abu Dhabi.
“The crowd was like a 12th man for us, so I wish we could have given them the victory,” said UAE Coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
“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.
The Emirates scored after just 14 seconds when the two teams met at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia but there was little danger of that in a scruffy first half.
UAE’s Ismail Alhammadi fired tamely at 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 appeared to have crossed the line.
Sami Alhusaini almost equalised five minutes from time, only for Alawi to pull off a stunning block.
But referee Adham Makhadmeh pointed to the spot five minutes from time for what appeared to be 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 a raucous crowd of 33,000 wild.
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.”
Zaccheroni steered Japan to the continental title in 2011, but his Emirates side have flat-lined in the run-up to this year’s competition, scoring just 10 goals in 18 games under the Italian.
Their hopes of going deep into the tournament have not been helped by the loss of mop-top talisman Omar Abdulrahman through injury.
They take on India and Thailand in their next two Group A fixtures.
However, 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.
The Emiratis were beaten finalists the last time the country hosted the Asian Cup in 1996, losing on penalties to Saudi Arabia but appeared to be stifled by the pressure in the opening match.
“We had our chances but just couldn’t take them,” shrugged Zaccheroni.
“We struggled to supply the forwards at times and the players were getting a little frustrated. But we will have to deal with the pressure and be brave.”