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Debutants ready to shine on ultimate stage

Abu Dhabi: Since its inception in 1956, the AFC Asian Cup has seen 32 nations grace the ultimate stage. The decision to expand the 17th edition of Asia’s crown jewel to 24 teams made an instant impact with Kyrgyz Republic, the Philippines and Yemen marking the first time the tournament will see three debutants since the 2004 edition in China PR.

As the Continent’s most-anticipated showpiece draws closer, the three debutants are leaving nothing to chance in their quests to confirm their deserving place amongst Asia’s elite.

Philippines extended their outstanding form beyond their Qualifiers, impressing with a six-match unbeaten run since March, which included commendable draws against Bahrain, Oman and Thailand before their narrow defeat to Vietnam in the AFF Cup semi-finals last week.

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The Azkals scored a major coup after securing the services of former England and Manchester City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson (pictured below) and the experienced tactician is relishing the prospects of carrying the hopes and dreams of the Southeast Asian nation.

“The AFC Asian Cup is the most prestigious tournament in the Continent, one of the best competitions in the world. There is no doubt this is the biggest moment in the history of Philippines football so naturally, I am aware of the expectations.

“I am very pleased with our preparations and despite our latest result against Vietnam, I believe we have shown great competitive spirit and we are ready to compete with the best in Asia.”

Fashioning a similar march towards the UAE, fellow Group F opponents Kyrgyz Republic have also impressed with convincing victories over Syria and Malaysia, but head coach Aleksandr Krestinin has cautioned his players following their latest setback against Japan.

The 40-year-old who orchestrated the White Falcons’ astonishing ascent in the FIFA World Ranking in April when they moved 40 places to 75, said: “Japan are one of the best teams in the world who finished top 16 at the FIFA World Cup. It was an excellent opportunity and good preparation for the boys to play world-class opponents. We have many lessons to draw from our preparations and we are focused on strengthening those areas.

“Qualifying for the competition has inspired a sense of belief not just with the team, but with all our fans across the country. I believe we have shown in the last few months that we can compete at the highest level and the players are motivated, we are ready to give the best performance of our lives in the UAE.”

Aleksandr Krestinin - Head Coach Kyrgyz Republic

Securing their berth on the final day of qualification, Yemen, who advanced to the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since the country's unification, showed incredible resolve and desire to brave several domestic challenges, which forced all home matches to be played in Qatar.

Displaying the same resilience and grit, the Yemenis continued to train and play in Qatar before moving their training base to Saudi Arabia and have most recently hired experienced head coach Slovakian Jan Kocian.

The former national coach of his native country and assistant manager of Austria said: “If you look at these players during training and matches, there is a level of commitment that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. They are determined, they will fight for every ball because all of them have a shared goal – they want to bring joy to the Yemeni supporters.

“There is no question that the other teams in the group are more accomplished but, on our day, most teams will find it difficult to break us down. Football is a team sport and it is the strong team spirit that will drive Yemen forward.”

Yemen will open their Group D campaign against Islamic Republic of Iran at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, Philippines will kick-start their conquest against powerhouses Korea Republic as fellow Group C opponents Kyrgyz Republic prepare to battle China PR, with all three matches scheduled to take place on January 7, 2019.

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