The UAE have emphasised the importance of starting strongly at the 2023 Asian Cup after they were drawn against Iran, Hong Kong and Palestine for next year’s tournament in Qatar.
The national team, semi-finalists in the past two editions, were placed in Group C at Thursday’s ceremony at the Katara Opera House in Doha. The tournament has been moved to Qatar from January 12-February 10 following China’s withdrawal last September as summer hosts.
The UAE, sitting 72nd in the current Fifa world rankings, will kick-off their quest for a first continental crown against Hong Kong, at 147th the tournament’s second-lowest ranked side, on January 14, before taking on Palestine four days later.
They round off their group campaign against Iran, Asia’s No 2-ranked team at present and three-time champions, on January 23.
The top two teams in each of the six groups progress to the last 16, alongside the four best third-placed sides.
“The group’s not going to be easy, but the system is the first two qualify, and then best No 3s,” Taco Velde, director of the technical and national teams department at the football association, told The National in Doha.
“So that means the first match against Hong Kong is vital. Hong Kong are progressing a lot, investing a lot in their national teams. They have a Norwegian coach, Jorn Andersen who is bringing his own style.
“And Palestine is an upcoming country. They are 93 in the world rankings, and they beat Bahrain recently in a friendly. So out of Pot 3 they’re maybe one of the best teams – that no one necessarily expects. They will be very motivated, so we have to match that and make sure we are the better team.
“And so the start is very important. If you begin the tournament with three points the whole group of players gets a lift, and it gives you such a high chance to qualify. You need only one more good result to advance to the round of 16.”
On Iran, who the UAE played twice in qualification for the 2022 World Cup – both matches finished 1-0 to Iran – Velde said: “Of course, we already played Iran two times in the last World Cup qualifying so we know them very well. We lost, but they were close matches. The biggest difference then was physical, so we have to somehow close that.
“They have top players, such as [Porto striker] Mehdi Taremi, [Bayer Leverkusen forward] Sardar Azmoun and [Feyenoord winger] Alireza Jahanbakbsh. As I said, the group’s not as easy as maybe some people would think, because Palestine and Hong Kong are certainly improving.”
Iran, 2022 World Cup entrants, may have lifted the trophy three times, but that success came across successive tournaments, from 1968 to 1976. They have been semi-finalists six times, most recently last time out, when the competition was staged in the UAE in 2019.
“I think we need to respect all teams,” Iran manager Amir Ghalenoei said. “All teams will come through this competition with 100 per cent preparation. But we are a very good team and after the World Cup – I need to say thank you to [former managers] Carlos Queiroz and before him Branko Ivankovic – we are in a good condition with these players.
“We will come to this competition with a good preparation, and I hope that we get strong results.”
Palestine, meanwhile, are appearing in the Asian Cup for only the third time after 2015 and 2019. On both occasions, they exited at the group stage without winning a match.
On the draw, manager Makram Daboub said: “The groups are all balanced at the level of the top six teams in the six groups played in the World Cup - there is no easy or difficult group.
“We evaluate ourselves compared to the previous two tournaments. We are required to achieve better results than the those, so we hope to appear well and honourably.
“Our first goal is to pass to the second round. I wish success and happiness for our Palestinian people, and we will be at the level of the event.”