Two goals from two defenders saw Australia cruise through to the final of the Asian Cup.
Ange Postecoglou opted for another new combination in midfield, with Mark Milligan selected along with Massimo Luongo and Mile Jedinak. Rather than reverting to the double pivot, however, the Socceroos continued with the 4-3-3, with Milligan playing as one of the two #8s. Elsewhere, Matthew Spiranovic returned at centre-back in place of Alex Wilkinson.
Mahdi Ali named two changes from the quarter-final win over Uzbekistan, with Walid Abbas returning from suspension in place of Abdulaziz Haikal, with Abdulaziz Sanquor moving back to right-back. Mohamed Abdulrahman, meanwhile, started ahead of Ismail Al Hammadi on the left wing, with Omar Abdulrahman on the right.
Australia score early
Before the tactical battle could even be discerned here, Trent Sainsbury exposed UAE concerns about an inability to defend set-pieces with a goal from a corner in the second minute. This undoubtedly had an impact on the UAE’s tactics.
Tellingly, this wasn’t the deep, reactive approach we’d seen from the UAE against Japan, where they had the benefit of an early goal. Whereas that had then given them the freedom to sit back and protect their lead (nearly proving costly when Japan barraged their goal with 28 shots), here, Australia’s early goal reversed the situation, with the UAE having to commit more numbers forward.
They started off pressing quite high up the pitch, with the front four pushing up and preventing the Socceroos back four from playing out easily.
When the Socceroos were able to play out past this pressure, primarily thanks to Trent Sainsbury’s comfort on the ball in bringing out from the back, they made inroads down the right flank. Ivan Franjic was able to get forward into dangerous crossing situations. He sent in three good balls from out wide in the opening twenty minutes. He and Kruse were involved in the build-up to the second goal, with Jason Davidson charging forward from left-back to score his first goal for his country.
The UAE got into the game more when Ali Mabkhout switched with Mohamed Abdulrahman (who’d started in the middle, behind Khalil), with two strikers high up the pitch making runs in behind and stretching the Socceroos defence. That created more space for Omar Abdulrahman, who drifted inside quickly from the right and found pockets of space between the lines to either chip balls over the top, or dribble past opposition midfielders.
Omar’s movement infield created space for Sanquor to overlap from right-back – he provided a smart cut-back for Khalil from which the striker shot onto the post.
By the second half, we had a very different contest to the type of games we’ve seen involving the Socceroos this tournament. Whereas in the group and against China in the quarter-final, they’ve dominated possession (in excess of 60% in all four games), this was much more even – their final total of 54% possession for the match was easily their lowest in the tournament so far. It reflected the UAE’s attempts to chase the game, with the Socceroos happy to defend slightly deeper than usual.
The combination of those two factors inevitably created space for Australia’s front three to counter-attack into, but Kruse and Leckie were both guilty of squandering chances on the break. Omar Abdulrahman became very ambitious with his passing, and ended up creating more chances for Australia with cheap giveaways than he did for his own side. A pass completion rate doesn’t wholly indicate whether a player plays well or badly, but 55% passing accuracy summed up Omar’s carelessness in possession.
UAE coach Madhi Ali used his substitute to introduce more attacking options, with Ismail Al Hammadi having a positive impact from the bench after half-time. Postecoglou, meanwhile, simply brought on fresh legs, with Matt McKay impressing in a twenty-minute cameo where he calmed the Socceroos passing, and allowed them to get more of a foothold on the game.
With the benefit of hindsight, this game was effectively over after Davidson’s goal. The tactical battle was very uneventful. It felt like Australia were in second gear for the remainder of the match, even though the UAE attempted to get back in the game via their flexible, interchangeable front four. That meant this was a more balanced game in terms of possession for the Socceroos, compared to the attack v defence exercises of their first four games.
They were never hugely troubled, though, and they go through to a second consecutive Asian Cup final, this time on home soil.