By Nick Mulvenney
ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Holders meet hosts when Australia take on the United Arab Emirates in an Asian Cup quarter-final in Al Ain on Friday that is likely to be decided by which of the teams does the best job of overcoming their problems in front of goal.
Despite needing penalties to get past Uzbekistan in the last 16, Australia will be strong favourites by virtue of their record at the tournament since moving to the Asian confederation in 2006.
Quarter-finalists on their debut in 2007, they reached the final in Qatar four years later before claiming the title on home soil in 2015, beating the UAE in the semi-finals along the way.
Replacing the prolific Tim Cahill with a regular goalscorer is a problem that has bedevilled the Socceroos and coach Graham Arnold has had as much luck as his three predecessors in this regard.
Being held goalless against the two best teams they have faced at the tournament so far -- Jordan and Uzbekistan -- does not augur well for the latter stages, even if Arnold will be able to start midfielder Mathew Leckie for the first time.
"We've had four games in this tournament, we've totally dominated the opposition, we're forcing them to play deep in their own half," an upbeat Arnold said on Thursday.
"They've hardly had a shot on goal in all four games in open play. So what's important is we continue to learn as a young group.
"It's just a matter now of improving every performance."
Like Australia, who lost Aaron Mooy to injury before the start the tournament, the UAE were deprived of their most creative player when Omar Abdulrahman suffered damaged cruciate ligaments in October.
Alberto Zaccheroni's side have stuttered without him and needed a soft extra time penalty to beat Kyrgyzstan 3-2 in the first knockout round after two draws and a sole win over India in the group stage.
Italian Zaccheroni, whose defence-minded Japan side beat Australia to win the 2011 final, has set great stock on his team playing in front of their own fans and downplayed concerns over the UAE's lack of cutting edge up front.
"I'm sure we have good players and we have the initiative to score goals," he said.
"We have more than just one striker in our front line and when we are in position we always try to score. We have played against teams who have defended with 10 players and have hit us on the counter-attack."
As reigning champions, the Socceroos have also faced massed defences in their first four matches and will be hoping Zaccheroni's side come out to play.
They might also hope to profit from the absence of central defensive rock Khalifa Mubarak, who broke his leg trying to prevent the first Kyrgyzstan goal on Monday.
The winners of the contest will meet either South Korea or Qatar in the semi-finals and Zaccheroni said he hoped the locals would come out in big numbers to do their best to ensure it was the hosts who went through.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Christian Radnedge)