UAE exit Asian Cup as balance of power shifts east

This is the third time in the last four Asian Cups that two teams from the region’s east will play for the championship

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The widening gulf between west and east Asian teams was reinforced on Tuesday when Australia beat the United Arab Emirates 2-0 in the Asian Cup semi-finals.

The Australians advanced to Saturday’s final against South Korea, marking the third time in the last four Asian Cups that two teams from the region’s east will play for the championship.

The Middle East, once the powerhouse of Asian football, will have to wait at least another four years to produce the winners after a tournament in which the west Asian teams promised so much but came up short.

Of the 16 teams who qualified for the event, 10 were from west Asia – UAE, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Palestine.

Of those 10, four had won the title before, Iran and Saudi Arabia three times each and Kuwait and Iraq once. Between 1968 and 1996, Middle Eastern teams won seven of the eight tournaments but the balance of power has now shifted east.

Despite the enormous wealth in those countries, just three of the 10 starting teams made the quarter-finals.

Iraq beat Iran to make the first semi-final, the UAE pulled off the upset of the tournament when they defeated the defending champions Japan to reach the last four but ran out of puff against Australia.

“We played three very tough matches, against Iran, Japan and Australia ... and many players were tired today, and we didn’t have enough power to come back,” UAE coach Mahdi Ali told reporters.

“We tried our best but Australia were the better side.”

The UAE were one of the great revelations of the tournament and will leave with their heads held high but their exit also showed the region needs to work hard to keep up with the likes of Australia, South Korea, Japan and an improving China.

Iran, the highest-ranked team in the tournament, were beaten in the quarters while Saudi Arabia failed to make it past the group stage. Qatar, hosts of the 2022 World Cup, lost all three pool games.

But Ali said all was not lost, adding that the Middle Eastern teams know their deficiencies and are working hard to keep up with the eastern nations.

“When we came here, our aim was to reach the semi-finals and we achieved the first goal,” he said.

“Of course, our big dream was to get the title because, since the beginning (of the Asian Cup in 1960), this competition it has never happened.

“But this was a good experience for our young players. I think they learnt a big lesson, that you have to learn to concentrate for the full 90 minutes and they need to go back and work hard for the future.”