IT was equivalent to a day time robbery last night as hosts UAE denied Bahrain a deserving victory through a controversial 1-1 draw in the Asian Cup curtain-raiser.
Substitute Ahmed Khalil smashed home a late penalty harshly awarded for a handball after Mohamed Alromaihi had given Bahrain a shock lead in Abu Dhabi.
But Bahrain coach Miroslav Soukup kept his counsel after the late setback, refusing to criticse the referee.
“You could maybe say it was hard luck,” said the Czech. “I didn’t see it and I haven’t seen the video, but the players were in the locker room saying it wasn’t a deliberate handball - so it’s bad luck.”
The UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni, however, was singing a different tune.
“The crowd was like a 12th man for us, so I wish we could have given them the victory,” was his assessment.
“But we will have to take this lesson and move on. The important thing is to evolve gradually from one game to the next and grow into the tournament.”
The Emirates scored after just 14 seconds when the two teams met at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia but there was little danger of that in a scruffy first-half.
UAE’s Ismail Alhammadi fired tamely at goalkeeper Sayed Alawi after six minutes before Ali Mabkhout blazed wildly over.
Bahrain went close just before half-time when Komail Alaswad fizzed a free kick just over the bar.
The home side’s profligacy continued as Mabkhout lashed wide from point-blank range.
That wastefulness came back to haunt the UAE after 78 minutes when Alromaihi bundled home after his initial header appeared to have crossed the line.
Sami Alhusaini almost equalised five minutes from time, only for Alawi to pull off a stunning block.
But Jordanian referee Adham Makhadmeh pointed to the spot five minutes from time for what appeared to be an unintentional handball to offer the hosts a lifeline.
Khalil, appearing in his 100th international, displayed nerves of steel as he stepped up to rifle the spot kick into the top corner and send a raucous crowd of 33,000 wild.
Zaccheroni steered Japan to the continental title in 2011, but his Emirates side have flat-lined in the run-up to this year’s competition, scoring just 10 goals in 18 games under the Italian.
Their hopes of going deep into the tournament have not been helped by the loss of mop-top talisman Omar Abdulrahman through injury.
They take on India and Thailand in their next two Group A fixtures.