UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni insists his players are more focused than ever ahead of their Asian Cup last-16 tie against Kyrgyzstan in Abu Dhabi on Monday.
The tournament hosts progressed to the knockout stages after winning Group A, but the national team are yet to hit their stride, having drawn against Bahrain and Thailand, while the win over India came after surviving plenty of early pressure.
However, with a place in the quarter-finals at stake when the UAE face Kyrgyzstan at Zayed Sports City Stadium, Zaccheroni is convinced the squad are ready to deliver.
“I haven’t seen so much focus and willpower from the players after the last game and after we qualified for the last 16,” Zaccheroni said at the pre-match conference on Sunday.
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“The players are in so much harmony. I agree that this will be a different game and we don’t have any special calculation for this game.
“We have studied the strengths and weakness of Kyrgyzstan, and we have to change certain technical and tactical aspects of our game, depending on the strengths of the opponent.”
Zaccheroni has come under pressure for his team’s performances and their struggles in front of goal, but the Italian has shrugged of the criticism.
“I have been the coach in the Italian league and the pressure compared to what you face there from the fans is nothing,” he said.
“My duty is to make sure our players improve. We have lot of speedy attackers who can surprise the opponents... I can see in their eye there is desire to win.
“They want to win the championship and they want to make the UAE fans happy, which is great.”
Zaccheroni believes the national team can address their goal-scoring issues by being more efficient with possession, while urging all players – not just the strikers – to share responsibility.
“We have to create opportunities by shooting at goal but all the statistics from the previous matches show we have held the possession,” he said. “The percentage of attack was also more than the other teams'. The goals other teams have scored came from counter attacks.
“The players and I are looking to improve the performance. Against Thailand, the number nine was playing up and going back to support the defence, and that helps.”
The UAE will start the match as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals, but Zaccheroni warned of the dangers posed by Kyrgyzstan.
“They have four players playing in the European league, and have developed a lot in the last few years,” he said. “The next stage will require a lot of focus and we will have to treat each game as the final game. There is no second chances coach from now on.”
Kyrgyzstan manager Aleksandr Krestinin revealed his team will be motivated by a telephone call from the country’s president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
“This kind of motivation and support from both the president of the country and fans are always welcome when you play against the tournament host that will have the backing of their fans in the stadium.
“They are a good side under a well-known coach, so any kind of support for us for this game, including the travelling fans, is a massive incentive and encouragement for us.”