Australia, UAE aiming for their first Asian Cup titles

If the detour leads to the ultimate destination for Tim Cahill and the Socceroos, Australians won’t be worried at all about the route the national team has taken to the Asian Cup final.

Australia takes on the United Arab Emirates in the semifinals on Tuesday at Newcastle, 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Sydney. Organizers no doubt would have preferred a semifinal at a heaving former Olympic stadium in Sydney on Australia Day, Jan. 26, but the Socceroos missed out on that by losing their last group game 1-0 to South Korea.

The South Koreans instead took that slot — at Australia’s marquee stadium on the national holiday — for their semifinal against 2007 champion Iraq.

Australians widely expected, then, that their team would be meeting defending champion Japan in the 33,000-seat stadium at Newcastle, in a rematch of the 2011 Asian Cup decider. But the UAE ensured that wouldn’t happen with a surprising quarterfinal win on penalties over the four-time champions.

And so both teams will be aiming for their first continental title when Australia hosts the UAE, a team that is growing in confidence and self-belief.

Cahill produced two spectacular goals to deliver Australia a 2-0 quarterfinal win over China last week.

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The United Arab Emirates earned their place after a thrilling 5-4 upset win on penalties after their quarterfinal with regional powerhouse Japan finished 1-1 after extra time.

While Australia has enviable attacking options with the likes of Cahill, Massimo Luongo, Robbie Kruse and captain Mile Jedinak, the UAE boasts the most prolific forward in the tournament in Ali Mabkhout, who has found the net four times.

The 35-year-old Cahill has three goals this tournament and has captured the imagination of home fans with his uncanny ability to turn a game with pinpoint headers and inspired shots at goal.

UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, meanwhile, has proved a formidable foe this Asian Cup.

Abdulrahman “is a good player, so is Mabkhout up front,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said, before adding that he was more concerned with the threat posed by the team as a whole than by individual players.

“They are probably one of the few national teams in this region, and particularly the Middle East, who have been pretty stable in terms of their coach and their team,” Postecoglou said. “They look more cohesive than some of the other sides that tend to chop and change a bit. That is where the danger lies, rather than with the individuals.”.

Australia and the UAE have never met in a competitive match, and their last two friendlies have ended in scoreless draws. Australia joined the Asian confederation in 2006 and its best run at the continental championships was a runner-up finish to Japan in 2011, when the UAE finished 13th.

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Two quarterfinals were decided on penalties but that didn’t’ concern Postecoglou, who didn’t leave any doubt about his approach in the knockout stage.

“What they do becomes a little bit irrelevant … We want to dictate the game,” he said. “So whether they sit back or come at us, we have to make sure in either scenario we are the ones on the front foot and dominating the game.”.

UAE coach Mahdi Ali said the win over reigning champion Japan had given his team renewed confidence.

“Of course … It’s a great thing it will give the players more confidence and more motivation,” Ali said. “We fought for the 120 minutes for this game and thank God that we win this game.”.

He knows, though, that the game against Australia will rise to another level.

“Of course playing against Australia in Australia will be a very tough game,” Ali said. “It will be a very tough game and the stadium will be very crowded and we hope that we do the same in the next game (as we did against Japan).”.

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