United Arab Emirates coach Alberto Zaccheroni indulged in some mind games Monday before the AFC Asian Cup 2019 semifinals, suggesting opponent Qatar is the favourite to win.
The Italian, who steered Japan to a record fourth title in 2011, sought to take the pressure off his players before Tuesday’s politically charged clash in Abu Dhabi by highlighting the strengths of 2022 World Cup host Qatar.
“They are an outstanding side who haven’t conceded a goal yet in this tournament,” said Zaccheroni, whose team stunned defending champion Australia 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
“Their results even before the Asian Cup were excellent. They are solid in all departments but they have some dangerous individuals too.
“They’ve been together for many years,” noted the former AC Milan and Lazio boss before a game that will be bristling with regional tensions over the long-running Gulf blockade of Qatar.
“That stability is a source of great strength for them.”
The winner of Tuesday’s semifinal will face Japan in the final on February 1.
- Highly motivated -
The Emiratis reached the final the last time they hosted the Asian Cup in 1996 and reached the last four in Australia four years ago.
Zaccheroni promised his side had extra incentive to go one better than in 2015 with key players Khalifa Mubarak and Mohamed Ahmed ruled out of the semifinal through injury and set to undergo surgery.
“The players who are fit are highly motivated and all aware of the importance of this game,” he said.
“We have faced our difficulties in this tournament in the group stage and in the last 16,” admitted Zaccheroni, whose side benefitted from controversial late penalties against Bahrain in its opening game and Kyrgyzstan in the knockout phase.
“But we are growing into the tournament and our performance against Australia has boosted our confidence.”
However, UAE has failed to set the world on fire and fans have hardly been flocking to see them, with swathes of empty seats visible at its matches.
Zaccheroni, though, brushed off criticism of his team’s somewhat laboured style in the absence through injury of mop-top playmaker Omar Abdulrahman.
“I don’t speak Arabic so I don’t read the newspapers to read what critics say,” sniffed the Italian.
“My focus is on getting my team to the final and we are confident we can do that.”
Qatar’s run to its first Asian Cup semifinal is all the more remarkable given the animosity shown towards them from local crowds.
But Portugal-born defender Pedro Miguel welcomed the pressure of being favourites after Qatar shocked co-favourites South Korea 1-0 in the quarter-finals.
“We want to be the favourites,” he told AFP . “All the players have the confidence to win this games. It’s important for the players, the staff and all of Qatar.”
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