UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni says he expects his players to perform to a higher level in the knockout stages of the Asian Cup after another uninspiring display against Thailand concluded their Group A assignments.
Monday night's 1-1 draw in Al Ain means the UAE secured first place in the group with five points, one ahead of Thailand and Bahrain, who also both reached the last 16 of the continental showpiece. Bahrain beat India 1-0 in their final match.
Despite topping the group, performances by the national team have been largely underwhelming so far. The hosts needed a last-gasp Ahmed Khalil penalty to rescue a point in their opener against Bahrain and a late Ali Mabkhout strike to kill off India 2-0 last Thursday.
Mabkhout, top scorer at the Asian Cup four years ago, was on the score sheet after seven minutes against Thailand before Thitiphan Puangjan equalised just before the break at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Zaccheroni, whose own future in the post has been the subject of speculation throughout the tournament with reports that Croatia's Zlatko Dalic will replace the Italian after the tournament ends on February 1, was less than satisfied with his team’s performance against the Thais.
“In all three matches we controlled them and, all in all, we were better than the other teams,” he said. “But I was expecting a better performance, we scored the early goal and controlled the game but after scoring we conceded the equaliser and we lost concentration and didn’t take advantage of playing at home.
“I know the fans are not happy with our performance and we aspire to do well in the coming stage, taking advantage of playing at home. Our team has solutions and we’ll use those in the coming matches.”
Zaccheroni's mood was in stark contrast to that of his opposite number Sirisak Yodyadthai, who declared himself "very happy" to have guided Thailand to the knockout stages of the Asian Cup for the first time in 47 years.
“Before the game today, I was worried because coming into this match we knew it would be tough against the hosts, but the team was well prepared to play today,” Sirisak said.
“The other game had to be accounted for because it could go either way but here we are, we have qualified and I’m very happy for the Thai fans.”
Thailand’s qualification to the knockout rounds of the quadrennial championship for the first the since 1972 is all the more remarkable given the team's disastrous start.
A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of India cost Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac his job with Sirisak appointed in his place.
Since taking over the reins, the 49-year-old Thai, who worked alongside Rajevac as one of his assistants, has overseen a significant improvement in the team's performances, securing a 1-0 win over Bahrain before Monday's draw against the Emirates.
Thailand finished ahead of Bahrain in second due to a better head-to-head record.
“After the defeat against India, things weren’t looking so good for our team and when I came in and things needed to changed,” he said.
“We inserted determination and motivation into the team and in the last two games I could see the players were determined to do better and get a positive result. I’m very proud and very happy and so grateful that we have made history for the Thai national team.”