Former UAE international Zuhair Bakhit has expressed his concerns about the national team’s preparations for the 2019 Asian Cup, but backed under-fire Alberto Zaccheroni to remain as manager.
The UAE host the continent’s showpiece event for only the second time in January, when an expanded 24-team tournament takes place across Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain and Sharjah.
As hosts, the UAE open the tournament on January 5 against Bahrain at Zayed Sports City Stadium, before completing their Group A campaign against Thailand and India. The final, again at Zayed Sports City, is slated for February 1.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s side are hoping for a strong showing, with the Football Association openly targeting a place in the final. Such a result would at least mirror the national team's runner-up finish in 1996, the only other time the Asian Cup has been held in the Emirates.
However, the UAE have struggled since Zaccheroni took charge 12 months ago and, despite reaching the Gulf Cup final last January, have won once in their past eight matches. Currently, they are ranked ninth in Asia by Fifa.
Recent friendlies, against Andorra, Trinidad and Tobago, Laos, Honduras and Venezuela have contrasted with those undertaken by some of their Asian rivals, with Saudi Arabia taking on Brazil last week and Japan playing Uruguay.
Speaking at an event for du Football Champions, Bakhit, a former forward who featured in three Asian Cups between 1988 and 1996, conceded he is troubled somewhat by the UAE's recent form.
“In the Asian Cup there are many good teams, especially Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia - they are very strong teams and are playing very strong friendly games,” he said. “But our national team don’t play really strong games. So this is difficult for us.
“I’m worried. Because if you want to reach semi-finals or final you have to play against strong national teams. I hope they reach the final. In ’96 we reached the final, but with this national team I don’t know. I hope they go forward, but to the final? I don’t want to say it’s difficult, but there is many strong teams.”
Zaccheroni has largely born the brunt of the UAE fans’ ire, with speculation rife lately the Italian, an Asian Cup winner with Japan in 2011, would be replaced. However, the FA has publicly reiterated their support for the former AC Milan and Juventus manager.
Bakhit agrees, while also downplaying rumours compatriot Mahdi Ali could be reinstated in the role he held until March last year.
"People talk too much about Zaccheroni, but we are not really professional here,” said Bakhit, a member of the UAE's 1990 World Cup squad. “Zaccheroni is Italian, he’s a big professional. We cannot talk about Zaccheroni, we have to talk about our players and our league here. This is the problem.
“The team went a little bit down after coach Mahdi. He was a good coach, but then we changed two times [Edgardo Bauza and Zaccheroni] - this is problem. Also, the players are becoming a little old now. Before they were young. And there are many injuries. This is also a problem.
“There is no time for Mahdi to come back. He’s my friend, a good coach and also a good man. He’s local and the players like him. But Zaccheroni is a big name, has another strong mentality. We have to follow Zaccheroni to reach in front. It’s too late [to change].”