(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) With nearly two months left for Oman's opening game against Uzbekistan on January 9, 2019, at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE, the national team coach, Pim Verbeek, believes that the Red Warriors have the potential to advance to the knockout round of the continental showpiece event. The tournament features the best 24 Asian teams, who will vie for the title from January 5-February 1.
Oman is clubbed along with heavyweight Japan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Group F with the top two teams and the four-best third-placed teams advancing to the round-of-16.
In his exclusive remarks to Muscat Daily on a day when the national team began a domestic preparatory camp at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex (SQSC) on Sunday, Verbeek said, 'We are preparing hard and it's all going according to plans.
'We played friendlies against strong teams like Jordan and Ecuador last month and now we take on Syria (November 16) and Bahrain (November 19). My aim is to see the players improve on their physical fitness. We will be playing two tough games in five days at the Asian Cup.'
Both the friendlies against Syria and Bahrain will be played at the SQSC and kick-off at 6.30pm.
The Dutchman, who would complete his second year as the national team coach next month, led Oman to its second Gulf Cup glory in January.
However, he said that the Asian Cup is at a totally different level and it will be a challenge to perform there.
Verbeek sent out a strong signal on Sunday by saying that 'no team would be happy to have us in its group.'
'We have a good team and it is going to be difficult for any team to beat us,' said Verbeek.
'We may not have big-name players nor are our players playing in big clubs or top leagues. But we have players who can bring in something extra into the team and we have the potential to spring a surprise against stronger teams with a bit of luck,' he added.
'Victory against Uzbeks to be key'
Verbeek, who will finalise his team for the Asian Cup next month after back-to-back friendlies against Tajikistan (December 13 and 16) in Muscat, said that his team's goal is to win the opener against Uzbekistan.
'The win in opening game is crucial as it would boost our hopes of qualification to next round. We need a minimum of four points to advance and a victory against the much-experienced Uzbeks will make things easier for us,' said Verbeek.
Oman plays former champions Japan in its next game on January 13 before taking on Turkmenistan on January 17.
The coach said, 'The forthcoming friendlies against Syria and Bahrain will give him a good idea of the physical fitness of the players. I hope there are no major injury concerns ahead afterosing two key central defenders – Nadir Awadh and Fahmi Doorbeen – last month.
'I will be trying out different combinations for both the upcoming games as I am looking to get the best possible options available before finalising the team. Bench strength is most important in big competitions like Asian Cup. I have a pool of 30 players and will pick my final 23 next month.'
Verbeek made it clear that Asian Cup can't be a tournament to try out new players and he will be looking to strike a balance with experienced and young players like Salah al Yahyai, Yaseen al Shiyadi.
'I have been impressed with Salah [al Yahyai] talent and also the return of experienced defender Mohammed 'Sheeba' al Balushi after a gap of an year and a half. Sheeba has done well in recent matches. He is a natural leader and has a personality in the defence,' said the coach.
On the criticism of his players lacking the flair of scoring,
Verbeek said, 'We all like to see goals but when we play friendlies, my focus is to try out different players. To win and score in each match, I should be playing my best XI all the time. My main priority is to find the best options at each positions and the friendlies give me a fair idea. So, my final team may necessarily not have the best players but it would be the best possible team for Asian Cup.'
'We still have time and though the players did not get much time to prepare for Syria and Bahrain games as they were with their respective clubs.
The team for Asian Cup along with few reserves will travel to Abu Dhabi for the final camp, starting on December 22, during which Oman plays India on December 27 followed by a friendly against Australia (December 30). Verbeek's men conclude their preparations with a friendly against Thailand on January 2.