On the eve of their 24th Arabian Gulf Cup opener against Iraq, Qatar coach Felix Sanchez was repeatedly asked about the historic Asian Cup triumph earlier this year. Sanchez, by now well versed with unpredictable nature of football, knows not to rest on past laurels.
“The Asian Cup is long over and we have to forget about that. This is another tournament, another start,” Sanchez said yesterday. “But we start with the same ambition, same possibilities,” he added.
In the regional tournament such as Gulf Cup, any team can beat anyone on a given day. In the 2017 edition of the tournament in Kuwait, not many put their money on Oman to lift the trophy, but under veteran Dutch coach Pim Verbeek they did exactly that.
So, while Asian champions Qatar are undoubtedly a dominant force in the region, they will be wary of the threat posed by Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. Sanchez’s men will have home support to rely on though, a huge factor in a big tournament. But the pressure of playing at home can also put a burden on players, which Sanchez is aware of. “It is good to play under pressure in the Gulf Cup, as we did in the Asian Cup and Copa America. We have to deal with each game separately,” the coach said.
Qatar’s previous triumphs came in 1992, 2004 and 2014, and are no doubt the strongest contenders among eight Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation teams to lift the title on December 6. Other than Iraq, they will lock horns with Yemen and the UAE in Group A. Group B comprises defending champions Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Qatar’s opening match today at the Khalifa International Stadium could be a slightly easier one than they expected due to the turmoil in Iraq’s camp. The unavailability of key players has disrupted Iraq’s preparations with eight of their players taking part in Arab Club Championship second-round match for Al Shorta against Mauritanian side Nouadhibou.
They are expected to join the squad in Doha today but Iraq coach Srecko Katanec, who had only 13 players, including two goalkeepers at training yesterday, was not too hopeful of fielding a full-strength squad against Qatar.
Having said that, Qatar should be wary of Iraq, who are leading their group in the World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers after their stunning 2-1 win over Asian powerhouse Iran earlier this month.
“The teams we will play against are strong and Iraq are a good team. We have played against them three times recently and are well organised. They are here to compete and we know this very well. Yes, it is a difficult game but I am happy to face Iraq,” Sanchez said.
“A good start tomorrow is very important. It’s not that if we win tomorrow we will go on and win the tournament and if we lose we will do badly in the tournament. But a good start against Iraq gives you a good feeling for the following games. Iraq are physically strong and have good quality players and we know it’s going to be a difficult game,” the Spanish coach added.
Sanchez will expect the strike force of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif to rack up goals as they did in the Asian Cup triumph. He will also rely on the returning Abdulkarim Hassan in defence, with captain Hassan al-Haydos and Karim Boudiaf running the show in midfield. The emergence of Youssef Abdel Razzaq and a few other youngsters will also add to Qatar’s arsenal.
“Our aim is to take on game at a time. UAE and Iraq are difficult sides. We’ve have to play really well. We had played the UAE in the Asian Cup. We had a good result against them. But the Gulf Cup is a new tournament. If we’ve to progress to the knock-out stage, we must play with a positive frame of mind,” he said.
Sanchez admitted selecting the squad has given him a happy headache, with the depth of availability of Qatari players. He was pleased though the team was on right track ahead of the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar will host.
“We are looking forward to start the competition as a part of our 2022 World Cup preparations. We had a good preparation after we came back after playing Afghanistan in Dushanbe, Tajikstan. The boys are in a good frame of mind. Playing in Doha is important. The support of the fans will motivate us,” he said.
Meanwhile, captain Hassan al-Haydos was hopeful the Qatar team can give the fans another reason to celebrate. “Iraq are a good side. It’s going to be a tough match. Gulf Cup has a special flavour. We want to make our people happy with another great victory as we did at the Asian Cup in January,” he said.
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