UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni (in blue suit) celebrates his team’s 1-0 win over Australia in Al Ain on Friday. Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s critics will be scurrying for cover as the team has marched into the semi-finals of the AFC Asian Cup, shutting the doors on defending Champions Australia with a 1-0 win on Friday night.

More importantly, UAE have made it to the last four without losing a single encounter.

Memories of the 1996 squad, which made it to the finals for their best finish — runners-up, have been revived and there is a sense of belief that history can be rewritten, if not more.

“It was a well-deserved victory over Australia,” said Zaccheroni. “They were a strong side with good tactics.”

He said that, despite injuries to Mohammad Ahmad and Fares Juma, the UAE team showed strong character.

“We had a tough time tackling the aerial balls but we fought very well to win the match,” he said, adding that he has always enjoyed healthy criticism and this has brought out the best in him.

“I’m a practical head coach and always ready for any criticism. My work is to look forward and find a stable way of playing. My role is also to make use of the best elements available in the right time and in the right manner. And I have to take advantage of the players’ skill to have a balanced style,” said the 65-year-old.

Acknowledging that the players have showed confidence in their head coach, Zaccheroni said: “They understand my way of playing, my way of thinking. They are genuine players and showed quality during the 90 minutes. They created chances and that was significant for the balanced play.

He thanked the players for their “great efforts”.

“The team deserved to win tonight and thanks to the fans for standing behind us” said Zaccheroni, who led Japan to title in 2011. “We are so happy that we made them happy tonight.”

The coach also went on to hail goal scorer Ali Mabkhout for his showing so far in the tournament. He was instrumental in latching on to a back pass blunder from Australia defender Milos Degenek before finding the back of the net with an easy finish.

“Everyone knows that Mabkhout is a high-calibre striker and a big player. His performance tonight was great. You know we rely on the collective performance and his goal was critical,” said Zaccheroni, who felt that the motivation that the side has got from this win will do a world of good going into the next match against Qatar.

“To be honest with you, I did not pay much attention to Qatar. I focused on Kyrgyzstan and Australia. I didn’t think about the confrontation with Qatar as we were dealing with the matches step by step. I haven’t had enough time yet to analyse. It will be a different game and it has its own factors. I’ll start analysing the opponent from tomorrow.”

Australia coach Graham Arnold chose not to put the blame on Milos for the setback and felt that the defender would bounce back.

“I’ve been in charge for eight games and have been changing the style and if you look, tonight there were four players who played at the World Cup.

“Milos didn’t get a minute at the World Cup, but he has stepped up at this tournament and done fantastically well. Obviously, he’s hurting at the moment but I’ll make sure he’s OK. He’s a fantastic kid, a fantastic professional and he’s got a long future with the Australian national team,” said Arnold, who took over as Australia coach from Bert van Marwijk after the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia.

“Football can be a cruel sport. It’s probably the only sport in the world where you can control possession, you can have much more possession and have more chances on goal and spend more time in the opposition’s half and you can still lose.

“But I couldn’t be prouder of the boys. It’s been a long camp, probably the longest they’ve been ever been in camp these players. It’s been a wonderful experience for myself and the staff and the country should be very proud of them.”