SYDNEY (Reuters) – Alberto Zaccheroni knows what it takes to win an Asian Cup but if he is to succeed with the United Arab Emirates as he did with Japan in 2011, the Italian coach will have to do it without one of the host nation’s outstanding talents.
Omar Abdulrahman’s delightful touch helped drive his country to third place in Australia four years ago but a knee injury sustained playing club soccer means the midfielder will be in a moonboot on the sidelines for the Jan. 5-Feb. 1 tournament.
Zaccheroni, though, has always be known for his tactical creativity — he had Japan playing a 4-2-3-1 formation in 2011 — and any squad in the charge of the former Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus boss can be relied upon to play an attacking style.
There was also a pre-tournament boost with Al Ain showing that Emirati players can compete at the highest level by getting past Esperance and River Plate to reach the final of the Club World Cup on home soil in December.
Seven players from the country’s most successful club made Zaccheroni’s 23-man squad for the Asian Cup, including goalkeeper Khalid Essa and Omar’s brothers Amer and Mohamed Abdulrahman.
It likely to be the forward pairing of Al Ahli’s Ahmed Khalil and Al Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout, however, that will decide whether the Italian’s fulfils his mission of getting the hosts to the final.
Khalil, who preceded Omar Abdulrahman as Asian Player of the Year in 2015 after helping Al Ahli to the Asian Champions League final, has a tally of a goal every other game over his 97-match international career.
Four of his 49 goals came at the last Asian Cup finals and only Mabkhout, who notched five, prevented him from finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.
That firepower should easily be enough to get the hosts out of a Group A also featuring Thailand, India and Bahrain but whether the 2019 squad can match their 1996 forebears by reaching the final on home soil might rely more on defence.
Essa showed he is a mighty shot-stopper as Al Ain reached the Club World Cup final but for all their doggedness, the Emiratis were taken apart 4-1 by Real Madrid in the title decider.
Certainly, the national team will not face the same quality opposition at any stage of the Asian Cup but Zaccheroni’s tactical flexibility and emphasis on attack have sometimes come at the cost of defensive solidity.
The UAE have won only four of 16 matches since he took charge in October 2017 and unless he rediscovers the alchemy that delivered tournament-winning results for Japan in 2011, he might be off long before his contract expires on Feb 1.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Greg Stutchbury)