UAE defender Mohanad Salem says the national team can handle the pressure that comes with being 2019 Asian Cup hosts, as they set sights on capturing the crown for the first time.
The UAE, currently the eighth-ranked side in Asia, welcome the expanded 24-team tournament to the Emirates in January for only the second time in the country’s history.
Drawn in Group A, Alberto Zaccheroni’s men kick off the event against Bahrain on January 5 at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium. They then take on Thailand and India as they seek to eventually reach a first final since 1996, the only other time the Asian Cup was staged in the UAE. The showpiece will take place at Zayed Sports City on February 1.
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However, the UAE must improve significantly if they are to better the bronze medal they claimed at the most recent Asian Cup, almost four years ago. The national team have won only one of their past eight matches, with the squad to meet again next month for a series of friendlies, one of which will be against Egypt on November 20.
Salem, a member of the 2015 team that finished third in Australia, acknowledges the UAE must cope with the strain that comes with being the home side when the Asian Cup gets under way in little more than two months' time.
“Obviously because we’re the host team we have so much pressure and the supporters are the first to give us pressure before the media,” the Al Ain centre-back said. “We understand that, we are preparing for that, and are training very hard in order to achieve the best results.
“All we can do is focus on the training and the games to cope with our own pressure and not think about the external pressures. We can do it.”
The Asian Cup has been billed as the biggest sports event to have been held in the UAE. Comprising 24 teams – the 2015 tournament had 16 – it will feature 51 matches across eight venues in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain and Sharjah.
“The tournament is very important for the UAE,” Salem said. “The UAE always aims to be the first for everything and now we’re hosting this tournament, so clearly we are trying to be the best host. Also for the national team: we’ll do our best to get the best results. And that would be to win the tournament.”
Asked if he believed the UAE could go one step further than the runner-up spot in 1996, Salem said: “Yes, it’s possible for the national team to win. Through dedication and determination we can reach that.
“But, to win this tournament, first we need to prepare very well. We need to give 200 per cent of our efforts if we are to be able to take the title.”