Abu Dhabi (AFP) – Describing himself as a “blast from the past”, United Arab Emirates coach Alberto Zaccheroni warned Friday that the Asian Cup hosts could just surprise a few people this month.

The soft-spoken Italian, who previously led Japan to the continental crown, insisted his side would attack Gulf rivals Bahrain in Saturday’s opening game in Abu Dhabi, despite being robbed of mercurial playmaker Omar Abdulrahman through injury.

“I’ve been in this job for a little over a year and the goal was to achieve the best possible result at the Asian Cup,” Zaccheroni told reporters.

“We’ve had a couple of injuries but that shouldn’t be an obstacle. Our preparation has been spot on and we’re ready to get off to the best possible start tomorrow.”

Zaccheroni has form at the Asian Cup, steering the Blue Samurai to the title in 2011.

“That was already eight years ago — I’m starting to feel old,” smiled the 65-year-old, who has been around the block in a distinguished coaching career, winning a Serie A scudetto with AC Milan in 1999.

“What I will say is that you saw an improvement in Asian teams in terms of fitness and tactics at last year’s World Cup.

“I’m sure you will see further evidence of that at this Asian Cup,” added Zaccheroni, whose Emirates team are favourites to top Group A ahead of Bahrain, Thailand and cricket-mad India.

“A lot of the games will be very tight and winning or losing will comes down to small details.”

The Emiratis were beaten finalists the last time the country hosted the Asian Cup in 1996, losing on penalties to Saudi Arabia in the final.

They reached the last four at the last edition in Australia four years ago after bundling out holders Japan in the quarter-finals.

“Hopefully we can improve on that performance,” said veteran midfielder Ismail Matar, set to appear in his fourth Asian Cup.

“Football is a big ocean and there are no guarantees,” he added. 

“Every game will be hard but we have to learn from the past and try not to repeat the same mistakes over and over.”

Local side Al Ain gave the national side a timely boost by reaching last month’s FIFA Club World Cup final against Real Madrid in Abu Dhabi.

But the smart money will be on South Korea, Iran or Japan to capture the continental title.

The absence of mop-top star Abdulrahman hurts the home side’s chances, but Matar is defiant.

“It’s up to us to go out and repay the trust and faith everyone have in us,” said the 35-year-old.

“We will leave everything on the pitch and see where it takes us.”