Abu Dhabi: UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni has a mounting AFC Asian Cup injury crisis as Ahmad Ismail was added to the treatment list on the eve of the tournament.
Earlier in the week, young midfielder Rayan Yaslam, who played a key role in seeing Al Ain into the Club World Cup final against Real Madrid, was ruled out the tournament, joining star playmaker Omar Abdul Rahman on the sidelines.
Now Al Ain captain Ismail is also a serious doubt for the tournament curtain-raiser against Bahrain on Saturday evening.
“In the Asian cup, we are all waiting to achieve outstanding performance. The preparation has gone well and we got all the support from the management,” said Zaccheroni on Friday.
“However, everyone knows we have had some injury worries but it is no excuse. It shouldn’t be an obstacle at all as we believe UAE team is prepared for the good start in this first match against Bahrain tomorrow.”
The Italian confirmed Ahmad is not 100 per cent ready for the first match of the tournament, which sees the hosts take on Bahrain at Zayed Sports City on Saturday evening following a glittering opening ceremony.
“Ahmad had joined only two days after the Club World Cup but couldn’t continue training,” said Zaccheroni. “He didn’t join the group training yesterday and has had only one day of training. We will be taking a look at him today.”
The UAE are attempting to better the runner-up position they achieved in 1996 when they last hosted the event. They finished third last time out when the event was held in Australia.
Zaccheroni has turned to veteran Al Wahda striker Esmail Mattar to deliver for The Whites.
The 35-year-old had been left out of Zaccheroni’s plans for more than a year before rejoining the national ranks in October, but the coach is confident the experienced frontman can play a key part as a member of the UAE squad.
“Matar is undoubtedly a talented player despite his injury,” insisted Zaccheroni. “When I came last season, he was injured but since the beginning of the season he has participated in all games. He has been an experienced player and played most games. All the 23 players are distinguished. It’s a long tournament and will need the services of all 23 players and also need them in good shape. He’s the most experienced player and his role will be key.”
Zaccheroni, 65, who was the Japan coach when they won the title in 2011 in Qatar, revealed that the memories of that tournament were fresh but he is eight years older now and all the teams have also improved over the years.
“Yes, I won the title with the Japanese team but that’s was a long time ago,” he said. “The performance of the teams have changed a lot since the last time I managed a team in the Asian Cup. Watching the teams in the 2018 World Cup, I can see a lot of improvement in the Asian teams. But the winner will win on small details.”
Mattar, who will be figuring in his fourth continental showpiece event, justified his selection saying that he was ready to grab the opportunity with both hands.
“Last time, to finish third was a remarkable result and in front of our home fans we hope to do better than the last time we hosted the tournament,” said. “This is a chance for me to make a good effort and score a goal. This is the only tournament I have not scored a goal, I want to achieve that. I’m one of the longest serving players in the UAE and I want share my experience with the teammates. Want to do everything possible to get the desired result for the team.”
Mattar rates Bahrain as a strong team and felt the UAE will have to be at the top of their game on Saturday.
“Before starting the tournament all the teams are equal,” he said. “All those who made it into the 24 are strong teams and have equal chances. At the end, it will be the best team on the pitch that will win.”