Australia assistant coach Ante Milicic has admitted the holders will have a target on their back when the Asian Cup kicks off in the UAE in early 2019, but the ex-international insists it is a challenge the Socceroos will not shy away from.
Milicic was assistant to Ange Postecoglou as the Socceroos lifted the continental title for the first time in 2015 on home soil, beating South Korea 2-1 after extra-time.
Milicic, 44, has been in the role since 2014. He stayed on in the same position as Dutchman Bert van Marwijk’s No2 following the resignation of Postecoglou a week after guiding the Socceroos to the 2018 World Cup last November, in the wake of a play-off victory against Honduras.
“I think so (we do have a target on our back) but that’s not a challenge we’ll shy away from,” said a defiant Milicic, speaking to media after the 2019 Asian Cup draw was concluded at Dubai’s Armani Hotel on Friday night.
“We’re looking forward to defending our title. We’re proud to be Asian champions and it’s a very big honour for us to be the best team in Asia.
“Now we’ll look to do well away from Australia which comes with its own challenges. But it’s one we’re looking forward to and one we’ll be prepared for.”
Australia were drawn in Group B where they will be reunited with Syria, as well as taking on Palestine and Jordan.
Current Sydney FC supremo Graham Arnold will be in charge for the tournament, as Van Marwijk is stepping aside after the World Cup.
And Milicic added: “You know one thing you’ll get from an Australian team is a well prepared side. We’ll do our research and prepare for all three sides. We know we will have to beat the best to get to the top and that’s what we will do. We’ll look forward to it.”
Milicic spoke highly of next year’s tournament hosts the UAE, who Australia overcame during qualification for this summer’s World Cup. He was full of praise for Alberto Zaccheroni’s side – despite their struggles since a brilliant third-place finish at the Asian Cup three years ago.
“I know from winning the Asian Cup at home what it means to be playing at home. We played them at home and I look at their team and on paper there’s so much talent, particularly going forward,” said Milicic.
“They’re defensively sound and I feel Zaccheroni will bring a good defensive structure to their game, which I think they need going forward.
“They have 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 with the players they have but also with the coach they’ve brought in, and playing at home. There’s a lot of positives for them.”
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.