Socceroos set for revenge on Zaccheroni

Playing the hosts in a quarterfinal of a major tournament can be a daunting prospect but on 2019 Asian Cup form so far, the United Arab Emirates should hold few fears for Australia on Friday. Rarely has a team reached so far in a tournament in less impressive fashion.

The presence of a certain Italian coach may evoke some painful memories however.

The last image of Alberto Zaccheroni that Australia have is probably the Italian being thrown into the Qatari air by the victorious Japanese players after the 2011 Asian Cup final.

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The smile of the man who led AC Milan to the 1999 Serie A title will likely not be as wide on Friday as his United Arab Emirates meet the Socceroos in Al Ain.

Now boss of the host nation of the 2019 edition, there is not much confidence in the host country going into the tie and rightly so, especially if his comments this week that he knows nothing about Australia are true.

If the Socceroos have rarely found top gear so far in this tournament, the UAE, who wouldn’t mind some revenge of their own for losing the 2015 semi-final, have been trying just to get the car started.

Italy famously won the 1982 World Cup after starting slowly, with three draws in the three group games, perhaps the former Milan, Juventus and Lazio coach is planning something similar.

Then though, the Azzurri burst into life with an epic 3-2 win over Brazil, it is debatable as to whether the Whites have a similar performance inside them. 

The indifferent form is not just confined to this tournament.

From being appointed in October 2017 to Asian Cup opener, Zaccheroni saw his side score just nine goals in 16 games, five of which came against Laos and Yemen.

It was no surprise then that there were persistent rumours over his future in the second half of 2018.

Not only was the football dull, it was also ineffective. Injury to star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman didn’t help. 

Hopes of a repeat of the final appearance when the country last hosted the tournament in 1996, were not high as it all kicked off in Abu Dhabi.

It was so bad that UAE needed a highly dubious late penalty to earn a point against Bahrain.

India were defeated 2-0 but the Blue Tigers had a number of chances and can count themselves a little unlucky not to get a point and then there was a 1-1 tie with Thailand. 

But the first objective had been secured. The 3-2 win over Kyrgyzstan in the second round rattled the nerves as well as the woodwork (three times it came to the hosts’ rescue) but the debutants were dispatched with a 3-2 scoreline. 

Against Australia, UAE will have to improve, that is for sure. 

The team spirit is growing and there were signs against the Central Asians that the team were starting to find their attacking feet.

Veteran Ismail Matar won the Golden Ball at the 2003 U20 World Cup but has returned to serve his nation one last time.

Leading by energetic example, he is supported by genuine attacking talent in Ali Mabkhout, on his day one of the best strikers in Asia. Ahmed Khalil can come off the bench to lend a sense of menace. 

Abdulrahman’s creativity is missed as is his ability to do something a little bit different.

Khalfan Mubarak has been trying his best to fill the hole, drifting in from the right to try and make things happen, and has done a decent job too. It’s not the same though. 

At the back however, Australia even without Tom Rogic will be rubbing their hands.

Zaccheroni likes to play with at least two defensive midfielders but the more bodies he puts in there, the less secure they look and there was little protection given against the wasteful Kyrgyzstan.

Some of the marking in and around the penalty area will also be encouraging to Graham Arnold especially when the ball comes in from wide areas. 

Australia defeated UAE on home soil four years ago. Should they take their chances then the tables will not be turned in Al Ain and Zaccheroni’s second Asian Cup will not be as successful as his first.