UAE will be formidable Asian Cup hosts for defending champions Australia, says Ante Milicic
Socceroos assistant coach says UAE have strong forward line and will 'do well' once Alberto Zaccheroni brings good defensive structure their game
Australia assistant coach Ante Milicic says he expects the UAE to represent formidable hosts when the Asian Cup kicks off in the Emirates early next year.
The national team, who are the continent's ninth-ranked side, face Bahrain in Abu Dhabi in the tournament’s opening match on January 5, after the draw was made on Friday night at the Armani Hotel in Dubai. Thailand and India take up the other two spots in Group A.
Much will be expected of the UAE, who host the tournament for only the second time in their history, despite a relatively modest start to 2011 Asian Cup-winner Alberto Zaccheroni’s tenure. The last time the event was held in the Emirates, in 1996, the UAE recorded their best result, finishing runners-up to Saudi Arabia.
Three years ago, with Mahdi Ali in charge, the national team took bronze in Australia having lost to the then hosts in the semi-final. Australia went on the secure the trophy for the first time.
Milicic was a member of the management team that masterminded that success, so knows all too well the pressure of delivering as host country. However, having seen the UAE at close quarters during the 2015 tournament, and then again in qualification for this summer’s Fifa World Cup, the former Australian international feels they have enough talent to perform well next January.
“I know by winning the Asian Cup at home what it means to be playing at home,” Milicic said. “We played the UAE in 2015 and in the [recent] qualifiers and I look at their team and, on paper, there’s so much talent, particularly going forward.
“You’re always looking if they’re defensively sound. I’m sure Zaccheroni will bring a good defensive structure to their game, which I feel they need. But going forward, they have probably one of the best attacking trios I’ve seen in [Ahmed] Khalil, Ali Mabkhout and Omar [Abdulrahman].
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see them do well, especially with the players they have available. But also in the experience they have with the coach they’ve brought in, and that they’re playing at home. There’s a lot of positives going in for them.”
Australia have been drawn in Group B alongside Palestine, Jordan and Syria, with the match against the latter the standout. The two met last September in a thrilling World Cup qualification play-off, when Australia triumphed narrowly across two legs to halt Syria’s incredible run.
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"Now they have a chance to get a little bit of revenge against us," Milicic said. "And it's good to try and get that so soon after that memorable night we had in Sydney. We'll be looking forward to it.
“It’s a tough group, there’s no hiding that fact. We’ve played two of those opponents recently. We all know in our qualification play-off game against Syria how difficult that was to get through. We have a lot of respect for Jordan as well: we played them in the first phase of the qualifying campaign. Palestine are a similar opponent.
“But at the same time, one thing you know you will get from Australia is a very well-prepared side. We’ll do our research and treat all three opposition teams equally. We know we will have to beat the best to get to the top and that’s what we will do.”
Asked about having a target on their back as defending champions, Milicic said: "This is a challenge that we won't shy away from. We're proud that we're Asian champions - it's a very big honour for us to be the best team in Asia.
"We're going to look to now do well away from Australia, away from home with different tests and challenges. But it's one we're definitely looking forward to and one we will be well prepared for."
Updated: May 5, 2018 12:28 PM