A lot depends on the astuteness of head coach Alberto Zaccheroni if the UAE are to go past the defending champions Australia in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 quarterfinals on Friday at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
The hosts have advanced so far in the tournament without crushing wins but did enough in each victory - Bahrain, Thailand, India and Kyrgyzstan - to stay alive.
The 'Whites' seem to have taken a leaf out of the 'Azzurri', who start slow, defend, conserve energy, stay almost under the radar for most part and then wake up when it matters. The former AC Milan and Juventus coach is very well implementing the tried and tested Italian style of play here. Well, he has succeeded so far. And for the UAE, that time has come to shift gears.
Australia will know wily technician Zaccheroni's approach all too well for he masterminded Japan to Asian Cup title in 2011 with an extra-time winner over the 'Socceroos'.
On the eve of the crucial match, Zaccheroni reminded everyone he was not an Emirati but felt as responsible as his home-grown players. "I am an Italian and not an Emirati but feel great responsibility as the players do. It will be a tough match but we're hoping to win."
Zaccheroni thrashed theory of the UAE's defensive and conservative approach but said the players were always on the prowl to score.
"Our approach and tactics are always based on available players, their abilities and role, and the opponent. We have more than one attacker and play with intent to score. So far in the tournament we have played opponents, who defended with 10 players and we have scored on the counter-attack," the coach said hinting at starting with more than one striker.
His plans have received a setback due to loss of defender Khalifa Mubarak to injury and central midfielder Khamis Esmaeel to a suspension. Also, the backline has conceded four times so far but the coach is confident that the players will make up for the absence.
"I am coach who doesn't like to concede. Yes, it's a concern but I'm sure we have quality. We are playing in front of our fans. It will be a big motivation to qualify for the semis and make them happy."
Defender Fares Juma, who will now fill the void left by Mubarak, said it will be a difficult match.
"We play the champions. It will be an intense game as both teams aspire to qualify. They are strong competitors, an experienced one and with great tournament history. We respect them but aren't afraid. We have enough capable players and all are ready for the challenge."
On behalf of his team, Juma appealed to fans to support and inspire them to the next round.
"We need all encouragement. We hope the stadium will be filled to capacity," the UAE defender said.
Meanwhile, Australian coach Graham Arnold said a packed stadium will work both ways.
"It can work to help or the opposite way. It can put pressure on them as the hosts," he said and noted the players had recovered well from the penalty shootout victory over Uzbekistan.
Australia will miss service of star midfielder Tom Rogic, who is suspended but Arnold is confident.
"We've recovered very well. Probably it has built a lot of confidence and belief in the group. But there's a lot of improvement left in us and I expect a great performance. We respect the UAE but we will play our style. We expect to dominate the game."
By Ashwani Kumar
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