‘Dark horses’ UAE plot Asian Cup shocks

Vice-President of the Asian Football Confederation Yousuf Al Serkal of UAE (centre left) holds the Asian Cup trophy at Doha International Airport on Monday. (AP)

‘Dark horses’ United Arab Emirates are plotting to spring a surprise or two at the Asian Cup, where making the knock-out stages would be a major achievement for the Group D minnows.

They open their account in a tough-looking group on January 11 against World Cup finalists North Korea, followed by matches against defending champions Iraq and regional heavyweights Iran.
UAE stormed to the Asian Cup finals for the eighth time thanks to a blistering start in qualifying that included a 5-0 thrashing of Malaysia, eventually finishing top of their group ahead of Uzbekistan.
“The Emirates are a team with a lot of quality young players who have less pressure,” said Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi, who - like many pundits - rates Group D the toughest at the tournament.
“They are preparing for 2014 (World Cup qualifying) and that takes the pressure off the coach and that makes them the spoiler of the group, they are the dark horse in the group and that makes this group interesting,” added Ghotbi, who is under pressure to deliver Iran’s first Asian Cup in 35 years.
UAE coach Srecko Katanec took his unfancied but up-and-coming side to Oman for a week-long training camp ahead of the Asian Cup, where their best performance to date has been runners-up in 1996.
In November, Katanec’s side thrashed hapless fellow Asian Cup finalists India 5-0, but results in recent friendlies have been mixed.
Nevertheless, UAE has seen its footballing profile boosted by hosting the Club World Cup in December, while ageing Italian star Fabio Cannavaro now plies his trade for club side Al Ahli.
A surprise silver at the Asian Games in November in Guangzhou, China, where they lost narrowly to Japan 1-0 in the final, reinforced the impression that exciting times might be just around the corner for UAE.
Katanec has been widely applauded for his exploits with the national team.
The wily coach made his name leading his home nation Slovenia to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, proving he knows what it takes to steer an unfashionable national team into a major tournament.
Also pivotal to the UAE’s prospects of getting out of Group D is striker Ismail Matar.
Capable of both scoring and creating, the clever 27-year-old is regarded as the best forward in the country and almost everything good about the UAE goes through him.
Their frontline also boasts young striker Ahmed Khalil, a talent who has been tipped as good enough to eventually make it in the European game.
UAE, whose proudest ever achievement was an appearance at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, take on reigning champions Iraq on January 15 and go up against Iran four days later.
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