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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

2019 Asian Cup: Mark Milligan upbeat on Australia's prospects for title defence in the UAE

The defending champions are in Group B for the competition in the UAE and were 5-0 victors over Oman in a friendly on Sunday

Australia captain Mark Milligan says the Asian champions are in good shape ahead of their title defence in the UAE this month, following Sunday's emphatic victory against Oman.

The Asian Cup holders defeated an admittedly poor Omani side 5-0 in the friendly at Dubai's Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium, in what was their final warm-up match before the continental competition kicks off this weekend.

Australia, who lifted a first Asian Cup almost four years ago, open their Group B campaign against Jordan in Al Ain next Sunday. They then face Syria and Palestine in the expanded 24-team tournament.

Understandably, Milligan was pleased with the manner of the Oman win, especially since it marked only Australia’s fourth match since manager Graham Arnold began his second spell in charge, this time alongside assistant Rene Meulensteen.

“Obviously we’ve still got a bit of work to do,” Milligan said. “We have limited time in this set-up, working with Arnie and Rene and the rest of the staff.

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“So it’s about us taking information as quickly as possible and that’s why we don’t want to waste opportunities like today to go out and to improve. We got some valuable minutes into a lot of us.

“The tournament’s just around the corner and it was important we got a good hit out and focused on what we needed to do. And we did a lot of that.”

Given their performance on home soil in 2015, Australia head into this month’s Asian Cup as one of the favourites for the trophy.

The 2018 World Cup entrants are currently ranked the second best team in Asia, behind only Iran, and will enter the tournament on a high following their four-match unbeaten run with Arnold.

However, as defending champions they are expected to deliver a strong performance.

“I don’t think it’s extra pressure,” Milligan said. “It’s just a little bit more difficult trying to go back-to-back; you start the tournament with a big target on your back. But I believe in this group.

“We have a good mix of experience and young boys who’ve had experience now, who are at a good age. The way that Arnie has us playing suits the players we have and the mindset of the group wants to do well."

Against Oman, Mustafa Amini and Awer Mabil both performed well to continue their recent development.

A former Borussia Dortmund midfielder who now plays in Denmark, Amini made his first start for Australia only in late November, but has shown enough to suggest he could fill the void left by injured Huddersfield Town midfielder Aaron Mooy.

"Absolutely," Milligan said. "Musty’s a wonderful player. He’s been doing very, very well at club level and he’s becoming more comfortable in this group the more he’s about. He’s very, very good on the ball. We need that 'six' that maybe can just sit and screen a little bit. We have a lot of options going forward and I definitely feel that’s a role Musty can fill."

Milligan provided a typically reliable display against Oman, although he was deployed in central midfield instead of his usual position in defence.

The Hibernian player, who represented Abu Dhabi side Baniyas for two years from 2015, was told only the night before the Oman friendly, but said he would be happy to feature in the middle of the park again if called upon during the Asian Cup.

"I don’t know yet; there’s a lot of games coming up," Milligan said. "If we plan on going all the way, which obviously we do, we’ve shown over the last couple of years that you need to use your squad.

"If that involves at some stage me playing in midfield or at the back it doesn’t bother me. I just enjoy being on the pitch and wherever [Arnold] puts me I’ll just give whatever I have."

Asked how important it is to begin their defence with another winning performance against Jordan next week, Milligan added:

“We know any tournament situation you have to start well. We know that it’s a long tournament and we’ll build. But we want to put our marker down from the beginning.”

Updated: December 31, 2018 12:14 PM

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