The 2019 edition kicks off on January 5 next year, with the Whites taking on Gulf rivals Bahrain in the opening game at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium. Zaccheroni’s charges were also drawn alongside India and Thailand in Group A at the draw, held at the Armani Hotel in Dubai on Friday night.
The UAE made the final the only previous occasion they hosted the tournament, beaten cruelly 4-2 on penalties by fierce rivals Saudi Arabia after a 0-0 draw in 1996.
And Zaccheroni, the former AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus manager, promised a passionate performance from his players on home soil 23 years on.
“I won’t promise victory but I promise that the players will work as hard as possible,” said the 65-year-old Italian icon, who previously coached Japan to victory at the 2011 tournament.
“And they will perform to a standard to be proud of and challenge for the title. I trust completely the capabilities of the UAE national team players. We will use the fact we’re at home and having the fans behind us as motivation. I have total faith in my players.”
Asian powerhouses Australia, as defending champions, as well as Japan and Saudi, will be among the favourites for the title, but Zaccheroni insists there is not much between those teams and the UAE – despite being outclassed by that trio in World Cup qualifying for Russia.
“There’s no big gap between the big teams, they are almost the same level,” he said. “There is maybe a small gap between them. They are balanced.”
UAE football fans will rejoice at being placed in one of the more easier groups, yet Zaccheroni is not one who will be underestimating the remaining teams in the group.
“We have a huge challenge ahead,” added the veteran coach.
“It’s a big honour to be hosts, but it will be very, very difficult. This is not an easy group. Being with India, Thailand and Bahrain is not easy.
“The proof of that is Thailand, a team that has improved greatly in recent years, as you can see from their performances in the World Cup qualifiers and the King’s Cup we played with them in March.
“Thailand have proven in the recent qualifying campaign, they have improved a lot. So much recently. India I have to admit I don’t know much about. People shouldn’t underestimate them.
“We have to give 100 per cent, especially in the first game to qualify from the group stage. Bahrain, I think the game will be very difficult because they were good in the Gulf Cup.
“They were the team who made the biggest impact in the Gulf Cup, they were a surprise. They are a good team and it will not be easy.
“The group is very difficult, it’s not easy. But I have good experience and I’m going to prepare the UAE team very well. But we play here and we have the support of the fans so it’s positive for us.”
Zaccheroni will plan training camps for his side between August and December this year.
India captain Sunil Chhetri, meanwhile, who scored eight goals in qualifying for next year’s showpiece, classed it as an “enormous opportunity” for his country – one that is increasingly gravitating towards football.
“It’s an enormous opportunity and challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it,” said the 33-year-old striker, who has scored an impressive 56 goals in 97 caps.
“Everyone back home is very excited and we as players know we have the pressure of an entire nation on our shoulders and we want to go and put on a show.”
Attending the draw in an ambassadorial capacity was China’s former Manchester City midfielder Sun Jihai, who won 80 caps for China and was part of the side that finished runners-up at the 2004 Asian Cup in China – where they were beaten 3-1 by Japan.
Jihai, 40, believes the giant nation has its best ever pool of players and his backing China to put on their best-ever showing at the continental set-piece.
“China has never won the tournament but I believe this time is a good opportunity for us to shine,” said Jihai, who played nearly 150 Premier League games for City during a six-year spell in Manchester from 2002-08.
“Back in China we have a good generation of footballers and hopefully with good luck we will produce our best-ever performance at the Asian Cup.”
The seedings for the draw for the 2019 Asian Cup have been confirmed after the latest FIFA rankings were released on Thursday.
The draw for the 24-team continental competition is slated to take place on May 4 at 19:30 in Dubai at the Armani Hotel in Burj Khalifa. The 24 teams have been divided into four pots containing six sides each with UAE drawn in Pot 1 as the top seeds as is custom for the hosts.
They will be joined by Iran, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) April 12, 2018
The 12 teams who progressed to the final round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers were all given a direct bye to the 2019 Asian Cup and have been placed in Pot 1 and 2 of the draw.
Meanwhile, the remaining 12 teams which booked their tickets to UAE through the Asian Cup qualifiers have been placed in Pot 3 and 4. This includes Kyrgyzstan who have made the biggest jump in the latest FIFA rankings by climbing 40 spots from their 115th position in March.
The 24 teams will be divided into six group of four teams each during the draw on May 4. The top two teams from each group along with the best of the third-placed sides will advance to the Round of 16 which will signal the beginning of the knock-outs.
Mohannad Salem insists Al Ain are not simply content with the honour of participating in the AFC Champions League but have ambitions of challenging for a second continental title.
The Boss’ Champions League hopes have reached a critical point on the eve of an historical clash with Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal on Monday.
Both sides have tasted Asian success in the competition’s various guises, with Hilal victorious in the Asian Club Championship in 1991 and lifting it again in 1999/2000.
Al Ain hoisted the Champions League trophy in 2003 but both occupy the bottom two spots in Group D going into the final two games of this stage, with Iran’s Esteghlal and Qatar’s Al Rayyan joint top.
Zoran Mamic’s side have drawn all four games so far and sit third, two points adrift of the top two. And UAE veteran Salem knows it is crunch time for his side in the Garden City on Monday night.
“We are ready and motivated and the goal of Al Ain in the Champions League is not limited to just the honor of participating,” said the 33-year-old centre-back.
“Our ambition is to win the title and emerging from the group stage only will not satisfy us. I hope that we reach the final and win the title and I hope to have the strong support of the fans tomorrow as we welcome Al Hilal because the fans are an important element of the team.”
If Al Ain are in a precarious situation, visitors Hilal’s chances of progression are on life support following two defeats and two draws in their opening four games.
Only victory will do for Juan Brown’s side, who have lost two of the last four finals – including being defeated 1-0 by Japan’s Urawa Reds a year ago and going down by the same scoreline to Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, having beaten the Boss in the semi-finals.