ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Alberto Zaccheroni believes it will be much harder to win the Asian Cup this year than when he led Japan to their 2011 triumph but is confident his fast-improving United Arab Emirates side will get past Qatar in Tuesday’s semi-final.
The hosts made a slow start to the tournament and needed an extra time penalty to get past Kyrgyzstan in last 16 before beating reigning champions Australia courtesy of a defensive error to reach the last four.
“Even the small teams are difficult now, we cannot even call them small teams anymore,” the Italian told reporters on the eve of the semi-final on Monday.
“Football has evolved a lot in Asia and there are a lot more teams in the FIFA top 100 now. Yes, we faced some difficulties in the group and the round of 16, especially against sides that got 10 men behind the ball.
“But we are evolving and played a very good game in the quarter-final. I’m very confident we will be able to win the game.”
Qatar reached the semi-finals by beating Son Heung-min’s South Korea in the last eight and have won all five matches at the tournament.
Zaccheroni said he was not surprised that Felix Sanchez’s side had reached the Asian Cup semi-finals for the first time.
“They are well-organised, they haven’t conceded a goal and have been playing well for the last year,” he said.
“They have playing together for many years, that’s their main strength. They play in compact lines and have a good mix of youth and experience.
“We’re going to need to be fully focused to beat them tomorrow.”
Zaccheroni said he had full faith that the remaining 21 players in his squad would ensure injured defenders Khalifa Mubarak and Mohamed Ahmed would not be missed on Tuesday.
Matches between the Arabian Gulf neighbours are always keenly contested — they have split their four Asian Cup meetings with two wins apiece — but this clash will have an extra edge.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt launched a diplomatic and trade boycott of Qatar in June 2017. The countries accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, which it denies.
The result has been only a handful of fans, mainly Omanis, supporting the 2022 World Cup hosts during the tournament.
Perhaps because of the hosts’ slow start, Emirati fans did not come out in big numbers to support their team either until the quarter-final.
Steps have been taken to ensure there will be a full house cheering them on at the 40,000-capacity Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday.
The Abu Dhabi Sports Council snapped up the 18,000 remaining tickets for Tuesday’s match and gave them away to fans across the country on Sunday.
“We will make them happy,” promised Zaccheroni.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Amlan Chakraborty