Japan-United Arab Emirates playmakers take centre stage

January 22, 2015 – 10:42PM

Ian McCullough

Keisuke Honda.

Keisuke Honda. Photo: Getty Images

Two of the biggest stars of the Asian Cup face off in Sydney on Friday when Japan’s Keisuke Honda and the UAE’s Omar Abdulrahman battle for a spot in next week’s semi-finals.

Honda, who plays for Italian giants AC Milan, has been in sparkling form for the defending champions, scoring in all three of their Group D encounters.

The spiky-haired deadball specialist now boasts 28 goals in 68 international appearances enjoys rock star status in his homeland as one of the finest players Japan has produced.

Abdulrahman is held in similarly high esteem in the UAE and almost became the first Emirati to join an English Premier League club when he was offered a four-year deal by Manchester City 18 months ago, only for the move to break down due to visa problems.

The silky-skilled wideman has been a stand-out in this tournament because of his exceptional ability on the ball even more than his afro-style haircut.

Abdulrahman was man of the match in the 2-1 win over Bahrain that sealed the UAE’s first quarter-final spot since 1996 and the best player on the park in Brisbane during Monday’s last-gasp 1-0 defeat to Iran that denied his side top spot in Group C.

It was during that game he showcased his dribbling ability with a brilliant run into the Iran box that left four defenders in his wake.

Japan boss Javier Aguirre, a Mexican who counts Atletico Madrid, Osasuna and Espanyol amongst his former clubs, is well aware of the threat posed by 23-year-old Abdulrahman.

But he is also wary of young UAE striker Ali Mabkhout, who like Honda has scored three Asian Cup goals.

“I have watched the UAE’s games and I think he (Abdulrahman) is a wonderful player and I know European teams are looking at his high level play,” Aguirre said.

“But one player can’t win games … the UAE won as a team and we hope to take care of him the same as other players like Mabkhout.”

The Samurai Blue looked every inch tournament favourites in this week’s 2-0 win over Jordan, a performance that left opposing coach, former England star Ray Wilkins drooling.

Wilkins, who played 84 times for his country, believes Aguierre’s side are on course for a fifth Asian Cup crown.

“Tactically they’re exceptional,” he said.

“They have a fantastic mixture of youth and experience. Everything is good about the Japanese.”

Aspirations are high in Japan, who were bitterly disappointing at the World Cup in Brazil, finishing bottom of a group containing Columbia, Greece and the Ivory Coast.

It cost Alberto Zaccheroni his job and Aguirre, who coached Mexico at the 2002 World Cup, has warned an expectant nation not to expect a straight-forward victory.

“We must fight in the 90 minutes of each game and respect our opponents and hope to continue as we have done,” he said.

“From my experience in the Copa America, the World Cup and the Gold Cup, our chances are the same as the other seven teams; we start from zero from now.”



Source : The Canberra Times

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