Alberto Zaccheroni's UAE ready for familiar foes Thailand in Asian Cup
Manager aims for hosts to keep top spot in Group A ahead of final first-round clash in Al Ain on Monday
UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni conceded his side’s progress has been slow thus far at the Asian Cup, but stressed the hosts are focused solely on advancing to the knockout stages as group winners by defeating Thailand on Monday.
The national team go into the final round of Group A matches perched at the summit, one point ahead of India and Thailand. The former take on bottom side Bahrain at the same time in Sharjah.
A draw against Thailand at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium would therefore guarantee the UAE a place in the last 16, while victory would ensure they secure top spot – and with it a supposedly easier route into the tournament’s latter stages.
The home side’s prospects are looking rather rosier following Thursday night’s hard-fought victory against India, when they scored at the end of each half to win 2-0.
The UAE had been held to a disappointing 1-1 draw by Bahrain in the Asian Cup opener on January 5.
"First of all, we are so happy that we won the last match and nearly qualified the UAE team to the last 16,” Zaccheroni told a news conference in Al Ain on Sunday. “But our focus will be high on achieving the top spot and qualifying without looking or considering the result of the other match.
"The development of our performance is slow, but our ambition is to play well and show our best performance. Our progress is gradual. After this stage we will play against stronger teams in a knockout stage, but, for me, the players are fully ready - not just the 11 players, but in this competition we rely on 23 players. In the last match the players on the bench made the difference.
“In terms of performance, the team is progressing. And I hope the performance will progress further and in the coming match you'll see something else.”
The UAE know Thailand well having been drawn against them twice in qualifying for last summer’s Fifa World Cup.
The national team, managed at that time by Emirati Mahdi Ali and then Argentine Edgardo Bauza, defeated the South-East Asians 3-1 at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in October 2016 before being held to a 1-1 draw in Bangkok the following June.
Thailand head into the latest meeting still coming to terms with Milovan Rajevac’s dismissal prompted by their shock 4-1 defeat to India in last week's opener. Sirisak Yodyardthai has been placed in temporary charge, and opened his tenure by guiding his side to a narrow 1-0 victory against Bahrain on Thursday to keep alive their campaign.
"We are playing against a very developed national team with a different style of play, who is competing to win qualification to the last 16,” Zaccheroni said. “We are playing in front of a huge crowd in a great stadium, and I hope the fans will attend in massive numbers to support the players and be behind them.
"For me, tomorrow's match won't be easy. I spoke to the players after the match, and during daily training sessions, where I'm telling them that every match is important.
"We need to perform at our best level, better than our previous matches."
Zaccheroni, who led Japan to the Asian Cup crown in 2011, has been criticised for the UAE’s inability to find the net throughout his time in charge. In the 20 matches since his appointment 15 months ago, the national team have scored 13 goals, winning seven times.
However, Zaccheroni rejected criticism that he sets up his team too defensively.
"I don't agree with you that I adopted a compact, defensive style,” he said. “If you watched the last match you would have noticed that we were launching attacks with seven or eight players. The position of possession was better than the opponents in both the two matches so far.
Fans support during India game
“We are playing 4-3-3 with three in the front line because the quality and ability of players forced me to use this style. I use the tactics according to the ability and availability of the players.
"The two matches we played were against teams with a compact defence and that was the biggest issue for our team. The speed of the Asian teams is different, and even in the UAE league they don't have this element, but I'm sure in this match we are progressing and developing more and more."
Zaccheroni is hoping Ismail Ahmed will be fit to start after the defender suffered a head injury against India. The 35-year-old Al Ain centre-back is one of the most experienced players in the squad. Elsewhere, veteran forward Ismail Matar should be available again despite needing a protective mask to play following a cheekbone fracture sustained while featuring for club side Al Wahda in December.
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Updated: January 14, 2019 11:39 AM