The Whites are one of the favorites to win the tournament this year.
For the United Arab Emirates, things have come full circle in the last four years. Their mightily impressive showing at the AFC Asian Cup 2015 hinted at the resurgence of their national team. After finishing in third position at Australia 2015, the country’s FA has worked hard to ensure they go a step further this time around.
They managed to secure the UAE as the hosts of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup edition, making sure the Whites have extra leverage at the tournament. Since their bright display from four years ago, there have been sizeable resources put into turning them into a well-oiled machine. The UAE might not have had to play qualifiers for the tournament, but competitive friendlies and tough tasks have kept the squad on its toes.
Their dodgy recent form is mostly because of them playing in unfamiliar territory. They played two games in Doha last year, holding Bolivia to a draw and defeating Yemen. However, they’re expected to top the group by easily going past Thailand and India. Yet, it’s in the knockout rounds when the home advantage plays a big role in a national team’s success.
Australia rode on the support from their home fans and familiar surroundings to lift the title in 2015 and Alberto Zaccheroni’s men can pull off a similar feat this year. The Italian’s cautious approach has faced stark criticism from fans, but been effective in knockout-based tournaments. Under Zaccheroni, the Whites clawed their way to the final of the Arabian Gulf Cup last year, only to lose on penalties to Oman.
They played some attractive football in Australia four years ago. Strikers Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil scored nine out of the 10 goals netted by them. The two blooming frontmen will be rearing to go on home soil. Khalil, having scored 49 international goals, could become the UAE’s highest goalscorer of all-time, if he scores three or more goals to overtake the legendary Adnan Al Talyani. Mabkhout, arguably a more complete striker, has 44 to his name and was the Golden Boot winner at the tournament last time out.
These two prolific attackers will be supported by the experienced head of Ismail Matar. Having made 125 senior appearances for his country, Matar is going to play his final Asian Cup and would want to go out with a bang. He will be the guiding light to Mabkhout and Khalil, while also operating as the side’s leader, encouraging positivity in their game.
However, their frail defence could be an issue against the heavyweights. Despite having a tactically astute manager like Zaccheroni, the UAE have struggled to keep out teams. While the Italian sets them up to be impenetrable, the players themselves need to show maturity on the big occasions. Ismail Al Hammadi’s trickery on the wings as well as midfielders Amer Abdulrahman and Majed Hassan’s composure in the middle will also be key.
In 2015, the pressure led to the UAE’s downfall in the semi-final. This time, with packed crowds and loud voices of their countrymen rallying them on, they’ll find the confidence they lacked back then. Having a clinical strikeforce and an experienced coach who knows what it takes to win helps their cause further. With home advantage behind them, the UAE will go all guns blazing into the Asian Cup to pull off their first-ever major international tournament success.