No fans, no problem as Asian Cup pariahs Qatar target final

Abu Dhabi (AFP) –


Qatar coach Felix Sanchez is happy for his team to be labelled favourites in Tuesday's Asian Cup semi-final against host the United Arab Emirates -- and has backed his players to silence the haters once more.

Qatar's run to their first Asian Cup semi-final is all the more remarkable given the abuse hurled at them by local crowds, but Sanchez insisted the 2022 World Cup hosts would welcome the pressure in a politically charged clash.

"The players are aware that there's pressure but they're dealing with it very well," the Spaniard said Monday. "We are more confident under pressure."

The Saudi-led blockade of the tiny, energy-rich state, over Doha's alleged support of terrorism -- a charge Qatar denies -- has robbed Sanchez's team of travelling support.

Even the hundred or so Omanis who have bravely turned up to cheer Qatar on are likely to find all of the tickets for the semi-final have been distributed to local fans.

"Up to this point it has been very demanding for us," admitted Sanchez, whose side stunned Son Heung-min's South Korea 1-0 in the quarter-finals.

"But this group of players are mentally strong," added the 43-year-old, who took over as head coach 18 months ago but has been involved with the current crop of players since 2006.

"They've proven they can compete against the best teams in Asia and they're still ambitious -- they want to keep going."

The winners of Monday's semi-final between Iran and Japan await in the final on February 1.

Meanwhile, Emirates coach Alberto Zaccheroni suggested the pressure was all on Qatar, not the hosts -- who upset holders Australia 1-0 to reach the last four.

- 'Outstanding side' -

"They are an outstanding side who haven't conceded a goal yet," said the Italian, who steered Japan to a record fourth Asian Cup title in 2011.

"Their results, even before the Asian Cup, were excellent. They are solid in all departments but they have some dangerous individuals too.

"They've been together for many years," noted the former AC Milan and Lazio boss. "And that stability is a source of great strength for them."

The Emiratis got to the final the last time they hosted the Asian Cup in 1996 and reached the last four in Australia four years ago.

But they have hardly dazzled in the absence of mop-top talisman Omar Abdulrahman and profited from controversial late penalties against Bahrain in their opening game and Kyrgyzstan in the knockout phase.

"The players who are fit are highly motivated and all aware of the importance of this game," promised Zaccheroni, who is missing key players Khalifa Mubarak and Mohamed Ahmed through injury.

"We have faced our difficulties in this tournament in the group stage and in the last 16. But we are growing into the competition.

Asked about criticism of his side's performances, Zaccheroni sniffed: "I don't speak Arabic so I don't read the newspapers -- my focus is on getting the team to the final and we're confident of doing that."