Gulf Cup: Big boys descend on Doha, underdogs look to bite again, Van Marwijk and Renard feel pressure

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The great and good of Middle Eastern football have descended on Qatar for an intriguing 24th edition of the Gulf Cup from November 26-December 8.

A reduced running of the biennial competition was expected when the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia adhered to the diplomatic boycott in place since June 2017. But the trio all accepted second invitations from the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation, the tournament’s governing body, on November 12 and another draw was made.

Here is the preview ahead of Tuesday’s big kick-off between the hosts and Iraq:

UP FOR GRABS

The Gulf Cup felt like an afterthought last time.

Saudi Arabia took a ‘B’ team to Kuwait as they prepared for the ending of their 12-year World Cup absence, while the likes of crestfallen Qatar, the UAE and Iraq were licking wounds after failing to book their spots in Russia. There was also a hotly-contested Asian Cup looming a year away.

Fast forward to the present and the full complement of competitors have named full-strength squads. It provides an enticing mix.

Saudi Arabia’s eight-strong contingent of 2019 AFC Champions League winners are headlined by joyous winger Salem Al Dawsari. A nation desires the ending of a 15-year wait to be regional kings, once more.

A contest against three-time winners Qatar appears inevitable. They roared to success at January’s continental event, with the likes of mercurial Al Sadd winger Akram Afif and record-breaking Al Duhail centre forward Almoez Ali now primed for glory on home soil.

Last time’s beaten finalists the UAE are weakened by 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman’s forced withdrawal because of enduring fitness concerns and teething problems under new boss Bert van Marwijk. Yet Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout remains without compare in Asia, plus a fresh vanguard of starlets such as centre-back Khalifa Al Hammadi and Al Wasl flyer Ali Saleh are hungry to make their names.

Iraq are hurt by, typical, disruption that has engulfed coach Srecko Katanec and unavailability of Europe-based stars, but just watch 19-year-old forward Muhanad Ali fly in national colours after his travails at Doha’s Al Duhail.

A rank outsider prevailed last time, despite this deep reservoir of collective talent. Can anyone repeat holders Oman’s heroics?

WILL AN UNDERDOG BITE?

Oman, at best, were fifth in the running to prevail last time.

Inspired by Dutch veteran Pim Verbeek, plus helped by Mahdi Abduljabbar’s semi-final own goal for Bahrain and Amoory’s implosion in the final, they overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Can an underdog emerge from the pack again? The odds, this time, are substantially longer.

But we learned in 2017/18 to never say never.

The Omanis have 12 points from 15 in second-round World Cup qualification under Erwin Koeman and a prolific scorer in midfielder Rabia Al Mandhar has since appeared. Yemen, also, took the lead twice versus the Saudis in September’s epic 2-2 draw.

It is more difficult, however, to be effusive about Bahrain and Kuwait.

The former are hurt by 111-cap veteran Ismail Abdullatif’s injury and Slavia Prague retention of fellow striker Abdulla Yusuf Helal. Record 10-time winners Kuwait have floundered against most opposition other than Chinese Taipei – who they beat 9-0 on November 14 – since their two-year FIFA ban was ended in December 2017.

FEELING THE PRESSURE

Sub-plots always abound in Middle Eastern football – and this time is no different.

One of the more engaging surrounds the UAE’s Van Marwijk and Saudi’s Herve Renard. European coaches of stellar reputations, for whom early struggles in new posts are undeniable.

Van Marwijk’s bold transition away from the ‘Golden Generation’ has hit the buffers after successive competitive losses at Thailand and Vietnam. Unbeaten Renard has won just two of six matches with the Green Falcons.

The real barometer for both is the 2022 process. But more stumbles in Qatar will be, severely, frowned upon.

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