- Al Ain went three goals down before drawing and prevailing on penalties
- Goalkeeper Khalid Eisa was the star of the match with two penalty saves
- Eisa discusses his heroic performance in the tournament opener
Fans at the opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup 2018 between UAE side Al Ain and New Zealand's Team Wellington certainly got a thrilling game. When the visitors surged into a three-goal lead, many felt the host nation’s representatives were all but eliminated. However, the never-say-die attitude of Al Ain’s players turned the game around and set up a penalty shoot-out.
Once a game goes to penalties, the goalkeeper becomes the most important person on the pitch, often playing an even more decisive role than the penalty takers. And so it was the case with Al Ain shot-stopper Khalid Eisa, who produced a superb save late in the second half to keep his side in the game, then stopped two penalties in the shoot-out to help his side progress to the next round.
Immediately after Wednesday's win, FIFA.com caught up with Eisa, whose efforts earned him the Alibaba Cloud Award for Man of the Match. We first asked him what was the key to his resolute and excellent performance in the shoot-out, given the huge pressure he was under. "It's because this is a World Cup, a global tournament, not an ordinary competition," he said.
"In these kinds of tournaments, you simply have to be at your best. We must perform well and make sacrifices, as you might only get to play in such tournaments once in a lifetime. Through our performance, we wanted to show the world that UAE football has come on significantly. That's why we never gave up hope and kept going until we drew and finally prevailed in the shoot-out."
No option but to win
Despite the UAE Pro-League champions going three goals down, Eisa never stopped encouraging his team-mates. Even as the goals went in, he never showed any sign of defeat or surrender. "I never doubted our ability to go through," he said.
"Even when they scored the third goal, I was sure we could pull off a comeback and qualify. I saw it in the eyes of the players. I felt they wanted to send a message to the whole world to prove that we weren't just playing because we were from the host country and UAE champions. We wanted to show that, just like the other teams, we too are champions and can go far in the competition."
Al Ain now need to refocus and immediately prepare for an even tougher assignment on Saturday: an all-Arab clash against Esperance of Tunisia, who beat Egypt's Al Ahly to win this year’s CAF Champions League, in the second round.
Eisa knows well what to expect from Saturday's game. "First, we must respect and appreciate our next opponent. Esperance are a big, long established club who won their Champions League against the most successful team in Africa, Al Ahly. The Tunisians have some excellent players and they're well disciplined. The important thing now is to put on a game that befits Arab football."
Asked about his side’s aspirations for the rest of the tournament, Eisa said confidently: "Our journey will not end here. Our goal is not only to reach the quarter-final. We want to go as far as possible. Our ultimate objective is to represent the UAE as best we can and make our nation proud."
Having already come from three goals down, Al Ain will fancy their chances against any opponent, provided Eisa and his team-mates continue to perform like they did on Wednesday night.