190111 ali mabkhout
UAE’s Ali Mabkhout celebrates scoring their second goal with coach Alberto Zaccheroni during their Group A match against India at the Zayed Sports City Stadium on Thursday. Image Credit: AFC twitter

Abu Dhabi: It was a hard fought 2-0 win for UAE against a robust Indian side, but an important one. The triumph has put Alberto Zaccheroni’s side at the top of Group A with four points. However, their job is still not done as they need at least a draw against Thailand to be certain of a place in the round of 16.

All the teams in this group still have a chance of qualifying with Thailand stunning Bahrain on Thursday. India and Thailand are both on three points each behind the UAE and Bahrain are on one point. And this makes the final outing in this group crucial for all four teams.

The India clash was a test of character for the UAE after being held by Bahrain and despite a strong start from the Blue Tigers, the hosts didn’t allow them to pounce.

Lady luck also played a part as India missed multiple opportunities but the UAE stayed calm and took the chances that came their way with strikes by Khalfan Mubarak and Ali Mabkhout securing the win.

A visibly pleased Zaccheroni hailed the spirit shown by his wards against a speedy Indian side that kept coming back in waves of attack.

“The game against Bahrain was disappointing and would not have satisfied the fans, but this win would have as it came against a difficult side that displayed very good performance,” said Zaccheroni, who had no doubts in his mind that their counterparts will be a force in the coming years.

“We faced some difficulties especially in the first half because of the speed of the Indian players,” said Zaccheroni. “They will have a better run at the next championship. They are fast and good on counter attacks. Thankfully, I made some changes in the second half and the performance was very different. We improved on our possession and got close to goal and were more focused on defence and played compact and managed to score second.”

The Italian also felt that Thailand, whom they will be playing next, will also post a challenge for his team. Under interim coach Sirisak Yodyathai, who took over following the sacking of Milovan Rajevac, Thailand have changed their playing style and tactics.

“Thailand have managed to win against Bahrain and I need to watch that game to analyse their strength and weaknesses,” said Zaccheroni. “Thailand have a lot of good players and we will have to come up with a good plan against them.”

Mabkhout’s goal against India also allowed him to become the leading goalscorer for the UAE at the Asian Cup with six goals in eight matches. He is now just seven goals behind Iran’s Ali Daei, who has 13 from three Asian Cup appearances.

“It is important to score goals, but the most important thing is to ensure that the team wins. The win today was crucial and we have managed to lead in the group,” said Mabkhout, who was the top scorer in the 2015 Asian Games with five goals including the fastest goal in 14 seconds against Bahrain.

“The players have done better than the first game against Bahrain and of course, we aspire for more. There was good harmony between me and Khalfan Mubarak and thank God, we succeeded in scoring. We will enter the next game against Thailand with the aim of winning.”

UAE defender Khalifa Mubarak also stressed that they needed to be guarded against Thailand as they have “strong ambitions” to qualify from the group.

“I don’t want to say that our group is strong or the levels are same, but their calculations are different now and the chances of qualification are open to everyone. Thailand match will not be easy and we have to prepare for it,” he said.