The Under 19 team are confident they can make a spirited defence of their Asia Cup title when the tournament kicks off in China on Sunday.
"The expectations are very high after the success we have had in this age group from the previous team," Juma Rabee, the youth national team coach, said.
"On the other hand, there is also pressure. So we must handle both, and I am confident these players can handle them." Key to their chances could be two survivors of the country's 2008 U19 Asia Cup-winning side, Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman. Khalil is arguably the first choice striker in the senior national team and Abdulrahman, the midfielder, is also in Srecko Katanec's squad. "The inclusion of Ahmed and Omar will definitely have a big impact and strengthen the team," Rabee said. "The team that won this championship has left a new benchmark and we will try to repeat that success."
They will fly from Dubai tomorrow to join the rest of the U19 squad in Zibo, China, ahead of their first game, against Japan, on Monday. "The preparations have gone well and we are ready for the job," Rabee said. "It is not an easy task to retain our hold in the continental championship but we will do our best to win it and also to qualify for the U20 World Cup." The team travelled to China via Thailand, defeating their Thai counterparts 2-1 in a friendly before heading to the championship venue where they beat China 1-0 in another warm-up match on Saturday before going down 3-2 to a Chinese club side yesterday.
But Rabee accepts he has a tough task trying to repeat the success of the 2008 team. Those youngsters, managed by Mahdi Ali, not only won the U19 Asia Cup but they also reached the quarter-finals in the U20 World Cup last year and won the U23 Gulf Cup at their first attempt in the second staging of the championship in Qatar in August. The UAE face Japan in their opening match in Group C that also includes Jordan and Vietnam. The top two teams from the four groups will advance to the quarter-finals in the 16-team championship, which runs until October 17.
"It is not going to be easy for any team because every one of them have come with the same intentions of winning as well as qualifying for the U20 World Cup," Rabee said. "We start with a tough game against Japan and that's where the focus is for us, to take one game at a time. Meanwhile, the junior national team won through to the final of the U17 Gulf Cup when they edged out Qatar 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out following a 2-2 deadlock after extra time.
They face Saudi Arabia, who beat Oman 2-1 in the other semi-final, at the Jaber Al Ahmed International Stadium in Kuwait tomorrow.