UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni believes the 2019 Asian Cup will be decided on small margins.
The tournament gets under way on Saturday when Zaccheroni’s men take on Bahrain at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi in the opening game of Group A.
Zaccheroni has enjoyed success in the event, having led Japan to the 2011 title in Qatar, but he believes much has changed in the intervening period.
He told a news conference: “The performance of the teams has changed a lot since the last time I managed a team in the Asian Cup.
“Watching the Asian teams in the 2018 World Cup I can see a lot of improvement in them and many of those teams are in the Asian Games. My guess is the winner will win on small details.
“I started working with UAE one year ago. We didn’t play big games but we played in the Gulf Cup and reached the final.
“The team has improved and there is a big change compared to the last time the UAE took part in the Asian Cup.
“The preparation has gone very well. We have had camps both in the UAE and abroad, and have received all the support that we can possibly get from the management.
“Of course, we have had some injury problems to some key players but we are not going to take that as an excuse for poor performances in this championship.”
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) January 4, 2019
UAE go into the tournament without injured star midfielder Omar Abdulrahman but otherwise have just one fitness concern with Al Ain captain Ismail Ahmed struggling with a calf problem.
Zaccheroni said: “He has been undergoing treatment with the team physician and joined the team training for the first time on Thursday.
“We will have another look at him tonight in our final training session and then take a decision on him. Otherwise, we have the full squad ready for action.”
Bahrain come into the game as underdogs but coach Miroslav Soukup is confident they can progress from a pool that also includes Thailand and India.
Soukup said: “I have young players in the team, but we have worked well in the past years to achieve a good result and repeat the 2004 performance [where they finished fourth in China].
“[We have] the same chances as Thailand and India.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
UAE – Ahmed Khalil
If UAE are to progress from Group A, then Khalil will have to be at his clinical best. The striker needs just three more to equal Adnan Al Talyani’s record of 52 goals for the host nation.
Bahrain – Yusuf Helal
Forward Helal comes into the tournament on the back of a big move at club level having joined Slavia Prague. Helal was already playing in the Czech Republic, on loan at Bohemians, but has impressed the league leaders enough to prompt them to act.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– UAE beat Bahrain 2-1 in their only previous Asian Cup encounter, it was in the 2015 group stages. Ali Mabkhout opened the scoring for UAE after only 14 seconds.
– UAE are hosting the Asian Cup for the second time after 1996 when they reached the final, losing on penalties against Saudi Arabia (0-0 aet, 4-2 pens). Five of the first seven Asian Cup tournaments were won by the host nation, but it’s happened only twice in the last nine editions.
– UAE have qualified for the Asian Cup finals for the 10th time in the last 11 editions. They have reached the knockout stages in only three of their previous nine appearances.
– Bahrain have made it to the Asian Cup finals for the fifth consecutive edition, their longest run of consecutive appearances in the competition. They have reached the knockout stages of the Asian Cup only once in their five previous appearances, it came in 2004 when they finished fourth.
– Bahrain kept a clean sheet in their first ever game at the Asian Cup, a goalless draw against Kuwait in 1988. Since then, they have always conceded at least one goal in their subsequent 18 games in the competition.
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