The United Arab Emirates have done it. Little fancied to win their last sixteen clash with Australia in Sharjah, they succeeded by dint of sheer hard work - and no little skill - in overcoming the Aussies. The game was more memorable for the electric atmosphere in the Al-Sharjah stadium and the indomitable spirit of Ismail Matar and co. than for the quality of the action. Now the Australians are free to repent their timid approach at leisure, while the Emirates will be partying long into the night. Tomorrow it will be time to turn their attentions to quarter-final opponents Colombia.
The encounter kicked off amidst a real festival atmosphere, with a Mexican wave rippling from stand to stand and the cries of the crowd filling the Sharjah night air. Straight from the kick-off, Ismail Matar delighted the watching fans as he signalled his intent, going for the jugular down the middle and winning a free kick 25 yards out. Taking it himself, he unleashed a powerful strike, which Nathan Coe collected gratefully at the second attempt (1’).
The home side were endeavouring to wrap up the match early on, but the Australians proved adept at weathering the storm. Before long they had the game under their control, yet were singularly lacking in adventure. “The first twenty minutes were difficult, but once we found our feet, we created some good chances,” acknowledged UAE coach Jean-François Jodar at the post-match press conference. Indeed, it was the Emirates who fashioned the first clear-cut opening when the omnipresent Matar accelerated and let fly with a rocket from 25 yards that sped over the crossbar with keeper Coe beaten (28’). Moments later, he tried his luck again from slightly closer to goal, but his drive grazed the post (31’). His gung-ho approach was stoking up the home support and spurring on his teammates, as every incursion over their opponents’ half-way line was greeted with screams of excitement.
With the crowd almost in a state of delirium, Matar once again escaped down the left and fired off a shot from the corner of the penalty area, only for it to pass the wrong side of the post (38’). After the interval, the desert storm recommenced with renewed vigour. Shehab Ahmed supplied Ali Sultan at the near post, but the big forward’s effort went narrowly wide (48’). Seconds later, Matar conjured up a brilliant flick to feed the same player, but the striker was again off target (49’). “Matar is truly an exceptional player, capable of creating danger at any moment with a dribble, feint or shot,” marvelled Jodar after the match.
In a repeat of the first half pattern, the Young Socceroos slowly settled things down, but continued to eschew any real risk-taking. Consequently, as in the first half, it was Jodar’s protégés who looked the more likely to make the breakthrough. Coe was forced to show all his class to claim a free kick delivered from the left by none other than Matar (68’), before Yousif Jaber was presented with a gilt-edged chance. Finding himself clean through in the box, he somehow contrived to miscue his shot (74’).
The pace of the game was waning now, although Matar continued to try his luck without success (86’). But finally he was to be rewarded for his efforts. Popping up unmarked on the left once more, he cut inside and let fly. Coe appeared to be well placed but was deceived by the wickedly spinning ball, which sailed through his flailing arms into the back of the net (0-1, 89’). The watching fans went wild and a wave of ecstasy engulfed the stands.
It was a scarcely believable result, including for Jodar: “I am absolutely over the moon. My lads produced a tremendous performance tonight. They deserve to be congratulated, they have achieved something truly amazing. We did out homework on the Australians, and knew they needed plenty of space. Our plan for nullifying them worked a treat.”
Despite his bitter disappointment, his counterpart Ange Postecoglou was every inch the good sport: “We didn’t play well, but I though that if we made it through to extra time 0-0, we would go all the way and win it. But when you concede a last-minute goal, there’s no way back.”