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AFC Asian Cup 2019: Bahrain’s robustness against UAE's possession-based football upsets pre-tournament notions in Group A

Abu Dhabi: Bahrain sprung a surprise on the inaugural day of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 when they held their much superior hosts United Arab Emirates to a 1-1 draw at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium on Saturday.

 AFC Asian Cup 2019: Bahrain’s robustness against UAEs possession-based football upsets pre-tournament notions in Group A

United Arab Emirates' midfielder Mohammed Abdulrahman (R) fights for the ball with Bahrain's forward Mohamed Al Romaihi. AFP

Bahrain who were in Pot 4 when the draw for the Asian Cup took place where considered one of the weaker teams in the group. From an Indian perspective, Bahrain was touted as the team India could take points off in Group that included UAE and Thailand.

However, it is clear after Saturday, that most misread Bahrain’s technical and tactical abilities. In front of a vocal Zayed Sports City stadium, Bahrain executed their gameplan to perfection. Apart from the opening 20 minutes where the Bahrain defence was disorganised, Miroslav Soukup’s men had the measure of the hosts.

It was only in the opening exchanges when UAE looked most dangerous. Ismail Al Hamadi was denied an early goal by Bahrain’s Sayed Alawi who did well to close the angle for the UAE forward. Four minutes later, in the tenth minute, UAE once again exposed the Bahrain centre-backs as forward Ali Ahmed Mabkhout was allowed to shoot from inside the area. The effort sailed wide of Alawi’s far post, but it was an alarm that Bahrain used to gather themselves and reset their game plan.

UAE, who like to play a possession-based, game rely on their central midfielders to dictate play. Soukup instructed his central midfielders to stay tight to their UAE counterparts and deny them the space to impose themselves on the game.

The moves forced the UAE forward to drop deep to receive the ball or get involved in play, making life easier for the Bahrain centre-backs to protect the space behind them.

The lack of creativity down the middle meant the UAE full-backs had to push on to provide the width, leaving space for the Bahrain forward to exploit. While Bahrain executed their defensive gameplan well, there was work to be done to get on the other side of the pitch.

That’s where centre-forward Mohamed Al Rohaimi made a big difference. The tall striker ran the channels tirelessly and his hold-up play was top notch. Thanks to his endeavours on his own at the top, Bahrain always had an outlet to release the pressure.

In the second half, Bahrain grew more confident and were able to go on the offensive more frequently.

The visiting wingers held their position in pockets between full-backs and centre-back behind the UAE midfield and were able to build meaningful attacks using that vacant space. Bahrain’s goal came in a spell they dominated, and it was the only time in the game one felt a goal was around the corner.

The image demonstrates the average positions of the two sides on the pitch. Opta

The image demonstrates the average positions of the two sides on the pitch. AFC

The Bahrain central midfielders are extremely close to the UAE ones. Similarly, the Al Rohaimi’s position is right between the two centre-backs, keeping them on the toes. In comparison, the UAE striker played in a much deeper position throughout the game and in front of the Bahrain centre-backs.

UAE were lucky to have levelled the game through the spot, after the penalty awarded to them was a bit harsh on Bahrain. The hosts may have forced a share of spoils, but Bahrain certainly gained the moral win. The visitors were tactically better, kept their shape well and had precision in their passing which UAE rarely portrayed.

Bahrain’s physicality and technical quality shone through in the tournament opener and if that game is anything to go by, Bahrain might just be the team to beat in Group A.

For India every game is huge challenge, but they may take a leaf out of Bahrain’s book when they take on UAE in their second game in Group A. India have the personnel to execute a similar defensive performance as Bahrain, but may miss not having an outlet like Al Rohaimi who engaged the entire UAE back line on his own.

Playing in front of their own crowd, needing to up the level of performance, UAE will be under big pressure when they take on India on Thursday. With a dogged defensive display, something which this Indian team has up its sleeve, Constantine and Co could play on the nerves of the UAE side.

It’s hard to predict how beneficial or otherwise the opening day result is for India without them kicking a ball, but the result certainly ups Bahrain’s stakes who will be setting their eyes on qualifying from the group perhaps even as group winners.

Bahrain have upset equations in Group A with their opening day performance. Can India produce the goods against Thailand to further upset the odds? A billion people await the answer.

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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2019 14:24:19 IST

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