UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni says he has complete faith that his players will do the country proud at next year’s Asian Cup after the hosts were drawn against Thailand, India and Bahrain.
The national team, who finished third three years ago, discovered their fate on Friday night at an extravagant ceremony at the Armani Hotel in Burj Khalifa.
Placed in Pot 1 alongside the continent's top-ranked teams, the UAE were given an automatic spot at the head of Group A. They will kick off their campaign against Gulf neighbours Bahrain on January 5 at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Given the draw, the UAE will expect to progress to the knockout stages at least, although they know well the threat posed by Thailand, in particular. The two teams met in qualification for this summer’s World Cup, with the UAE winning at home before being held to a draw in Bangkok.
That result last June effectively ended the national team’s hopes of making Russia. Bahrain, meanwhile, reached the semi-finals at the Arabian Gulf Cup earlier this year.
“We have a huge challenge ahead,” Zaccheroni said. “It’s a big honour to be hosts, but it will be very, very difficult. This is not an easy group. Being with India, Thailand and Bahrain is not easy.
“The proof of that is Thailand, a team that has improved greatly in recent years, as you can see from their performances in the World Cup qualifiers and the King’s Cup we played with them in March.
“Bahrain are also a very good team, a team that caused a surprise at the Gulf Cup. All the teams are a similar high standard, although I don’t really have any information about the India side. We will study them extensively.
“I won’t promise victory, but I promise that the players will work as hard as possible. And they will perform to a standard to be proud of and challenge for the title. I trust completely the capabilities of the UAE national team players. We will use the fact we’re at home and having the fans behind us. I have total faith in my players.”
Elsewhere, defending champions Australia were drawn in Group B alongside World Cup play-off rivals Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Saudi Arabia were placed in Group E together with Qatar, Lebanon and North Korea, while Iran - Asia’s highest-ranked side - take on Iraq, Vietnam and Yemen in Group D.
The tournament, staged in the UAE only once before, in 1996, has been extended to 24 teams for the first time, with Turkmenistan the lowest ranked side to have qualified. Currently, they sit 129th in the global rankings.
The top two teams in each group quality for the knockout stages, together with the four best third-placed sides. The 2019 event, which runs until February 1, has an increased prize fund totalling $15 million (Dh55m), with the winner to receive $5m.
The UAE’s best finish to date was the 1996 tournament on home soil, when they were defeated on penalties by Saudi Arabia. Last time out, in Australia, they reached the semi-finals before taking the bronze medal.
Eight venues have been chosen across four host cities: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Al Ain. The final will be played at Zayed Sports City.