The UAE will seek to kick-start their Asian Cup campaign on Thursday when they welcome a buoyant India to Abu Dhabi.
The pressure is on for the hosts after their 1-1 draw with unfancied Bahrain, from which 100-cap Ahmed Khalil saved the hosts’ day with an 88th-minute penalty. In contrast, Stephen Constantine’s India emphatically earned their first win at the tournament in 55 years when they battered rising Thailand 4-1.
Here are the talking points ahead of an intriguing Group A meeting:
Talk of a managerial change swiftly enveloped the UAE camp after the weekend’s start.
Indeed, a generously awarded spot-kick for handball was all that separated the Whites from defeat at ZSC.
Reports in the Arabic press spread that an emergency call had been sent out to Croatia’s former Al Ain boss, Zlatko Dalic. But head coach Alberto Zaccheroni remains in situ and he insisted on Wednesday “I don’t care about such stuff” when quizzed.
Away from this distraction, an invaluable chance to reboot the campaign – and narrative – awaits.
Zaccheroni knows how quickly it can change. His Japan side stumbled out of the blocks with a 1-1 stalemate with Lebanon in 2011, but by tournament’s end they were champions.
Even during 1996’s run from the UAE to the final when the event was last held on home soil, a 1-1 opening draw with – admittedly, continental giants – South Korea was recorded.
It is now up to predator Ali Mabkhout to sink the chances that he shows no mercy with when clad in Al Jazira’s colours. Al Ain metronome Amer Abdulrahman must grasp the midfield and skipper Fares Juma exhibit inspirational leadership.
Hope is not lost. Far from it.
ZACCHERONI’S TACTICAL TINKERING
Since his appointment in October 2017, Zaccheroni has struggled to stick with both a settled formation and line-up.
These have included variations of the trademark 3-4-3 that brought the 65-year-old such joy in Serie A with Udinese and AC Milan in the 1990s, to the Middle East’s ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 and a conventional 4-3-3.
A new shape, seemingly, came from nowhere at the weekend. The 4-4-1-1 appeared designed to make the most out of Arabian Gulf League assist-machine Khalfan Mubarak, in the absence through serious injury of heartbeat Omar Abdulrahman.
This did not occur. The team often chose to spread the ball wide, especially to a right flank from where elite anchor man Khamis Esmail was surprisingly stationed.
Mubarak would trudge off early in the second half, his face etched with consternation.
A conservative outlook against the underdogs continued the frustrations about a coach of whom his charges have scored just 11 goals under in 19 games.
India will be happy to cede possession against them on Thursday, then spring on the counter. This ‘rope-a-dope’ approach stunned Thailand.
It is up to the UAE to set the agenda. A start for rampaging second-half substitute Mohamed Abdulrahman will be key to this.
There can be no more reticence. Victory isn’t necessarily a must for qualification, but it is for gaining momentum.
رسميا .. منتخبنا بالأبيض والمنتخب الهندي بالأزرق في مباراة الغد ضمن الجولة الثانية لنهائيات كأس آسيا الإمارات 2019 ..#منصور_يالأبيض #قدام_يالأبيض #عيال_زايد_قدها #كأس_آسيا2019 pic.twitter.com/xXXOpmqiZA— UAE NT (@uaent2019) January 9, 2019
Thailand caretaker Sirisak Yodyadthai has insisted it will be business as usual when his side look to reignite their Asian Cup hopes against Bahrain.
A shock 4-1 humbling by India when they kicked off their tournament last Sunday caused Serbia’s Milovan Rajevac to be removed. The War Elephants now seek a vital first three-point haul in Group A when they meet Bahrain – who drew 1-1 with hosts UAE – at Al Maktoum Stadium.
“I have been an assistant to Rajevac since his appointment, and this is the same group of players that has been (with us) in the training camp,” said Yodyadthai. “There are a lot of things we are adjusting tactically, where we’re trying to do better in our attacking and also focusing on our defence.
“Obviously we want to give our fans something to cheer about. All the players and officials are going to do their best and show the Thai fans that we are still motivated.”
In contrast, the Bahrainis are looking to build on a promising opening. A surprise winning start was only denied to them by an 88th-minute penalty from substitute Ahmed Khalil at Zayed Sports City on Saturday.
Coach Miroslav Soukup promised there would be no let up from his troops.
The Czech said: “We are looking forward (to it), because if we want to qualify we can’t play for a draw.
“I hope that we will follow our performance from the second half in the match against the UAE and do our best to win against Thailand.”
Syria go into their second Group B fixture in the Asian Cup on Thursday in desperate need of a win. Bernd Stange’s side were left frustrated by a valiant Palestine display in their goalless opener but beating Jordan is in no way a foregone conclusion.
The Jordanians pulled off what might go down as the upset of the tournament when they defending champions Australia 1-0 on Sunday.
JORDAN ON A HIGH
Just how big a result Jordan’s win over Australia was cannot be emphasised enough. Beating the Asian Cup holders in their opening match was as shocking as it was impressive. Yes, they endured long spells without the ball – Australia had 70 per cent of possession in the first half – but did well to restrict the number of clear-cut chances afforded to the Socceroos.
Notably, they closed down the Aussies in midfield with real tenacity and always offered a threat on the break. Head coach Vital Borkelmans will hope their sky-high confidence helps them replicate that performance when they face Syria.
SYRIAN STARS MUST STRIKE
Syria boast a formidable front pair in strikers Omar Khrbin and Omar Al Soma but neither could find the target against an inferior Palestine side who for the final 22 minutes were down to 10 men following Mohammed Saleh’s dismissal. The duo are among the most threatening forward pairings in Asia but captain Al Soma – three-time winner of the Saudi Professional League Golden Boot – had a day to forget in their Group B opener.
The Al Ahli striker cut a frustrated figure as he was often crowded out in the final third. Khrbin on the other hand sprung into life in patches and was at the centre of his side’s best opportunities but ultimately couldn’t find the target. Syria need to get their star strikers firing against Jordan.
Al MAWAS BOOST
Given that Jordan will look to emulate Palestine’s defensive lowblock and frustrate Syria’s attackers, Stange will be hoping to welcome back the creative input of Mahmoud Al Mawas. The Umm Salal winger was serving out his suspension from competitive games during the opening fixture after being sent off in the final World Cup playoff game against Australia.
He was issued a second yellow for a challenge on Matt Leckie as the Aussies won 2-1 in extra-time and 3-2 on aggregate. Al Mawas starts on the right flank but regularly tucks inside, dropping into pockets of space in the final third from where he can affect the attack. His inclusion would lend support to Khrbin and elevate Syria’s link-up play in and around the area. With Osama Omari likely to be sidelined after being injured against Palestine, Al Mawas’ inclusion is even more crucial.