x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Cautious UAE coach Katanec calls for calm

The Iran coach has described the UAE as 'dark horses', but Srecko Katanec believes the group matches will gauge how far side has come.

UAE players train ahead of tonight's clash with North Korea. Jo Yong-Hak / Reuters
UAE players train ahead of tonight's clash with North Korea. Jo Yong-Hak / Reuters

DOHA // Srecko Katanec yesterday moved to play down the expectation of his side at the Asian Cup, believing it will be difficult to translate the success the country has enjoyed at youth level to the senior stage.

Players who have enjoyed age-group success at Gulf, Asian and Olympic level form the backbone of Katanec's side, who open their Group D campaign today against North Korea.

Afshin Ghotbi, the Iran coach, has described the UAE as "the tournament's dark horse".

Katanec is excited about the potential of this group of players, led by the striker Ahmed Khalil, and feels group matches against regional heavyweights North Korea, Iran and Iraq will provide a reliable gauge of their ability.

"Look, these players have played only against players of their age until now," Katanec said.

"Now they will be playing against guys who are bigger, stronger, more aggressive, more experienced. It will be a completely different level of football.

"In the next match [Iraq], they meet players who have already won this title four years before.

"In the last game they will be playing against players who play in the big European leagues.

"So we cannot compare Under 19 and Olympic team tournaments with this level. It is a completely different stage.

"Here it is a lot more physical, a lot more aggressive and you are playing against the best players.

"We know we have some quality young players and they have done well, but this is the past.

"Now they start a new football. So I will not be putting any pressure on them.

"For me, I would just like to see them go out and show that they can fight at this level."

Yousef Jaber, the Baniyas defender, accepts that his teammates are rookies at this level but believes their youthful exuberance could be a plus factor. "We have a lot of young players in the side," he said.

"They are new to this level, but that does not mean they do not have the experience to succeed at this level. They have played international matches with the youth and Olympic teams.

"That gives them the experience and ability to do well at this Asian Cup. We know we are in a tough group, but we do not fear any side. We are fully aware of the responsibility that we carry and I am confident we will be good ambassadors of UAE football.

"We will go all out for a win against North Korea.

"Getting three points from that game will be a big step towards qualifying for the second round. We have watched videos of the North Korea team and we are ready, physically and technically."

At 20, Mohammed Fawzi is one of the youngest members of the squad yet he did not appear overawed by the prospect of facing North Korea, a side who took part in the World Cup in South Africa last year.

"We are not looking for a draw," the versatile Baniyas midfielder said. "Our target is a win and three points.

"That is the start we are looking for. It will further raise the morale of the team and give their confidence a boost for the remaining games.

"It will be a difficult game, of course. The first game is always difficult and the results of the matches until now have shown that. But we are determined and focused."

The UAE should be well-aquainted with their opposition tonight; the two sides played out a goalless draw in the quarter-final of the Asian Games last month before the UAE eventually won 9-8 in a penalty shoot-out.

"What we do against North Korea is important," Katanec said.

"I have seen their games. They played in the World Cup and played a fantastic game against Brazil.

"They are very strong and have some very good players.

"During a game, they give you the impression that they are slowing down and then suddenly they charge at you. So we have to be very careful about this.

"I don't know if this is a deliberate strategy, but this is how their games go - up and down. They are very organised side.

"We are not the favourites so I have nothing to lose. All I want my players is to show they can fight at this level."

Saeed al Kathiri, the Al Wahda striker, is unlikely to start tonight but he summed up the mood in the squad.

"We are confident we will not let our fans down," he said.

"We have prepared well and the spirits are high inside the squad. Conditions are ripe for us to win against North Korea and get three points."

arizvi@thenational.ae