With the latest edition of the Asian Cup commencing, another major football tournament will be held in the tiny Gulf State of Qatar, coming just 14 months after the FIFA World Cup.
It’s fair to say that the host nation’s football team didn’t cover themselves in glory during what was an otherwise largely successful World Cup, losing all three games and finishing bottom of their group.
They will surely be desperate to acquit themselves a lot better when hosting the regional competition over the next four weeks.
But what can we expect from the Qataris during this Asian Cup?
Listen to the A-Leagues of Our Own podcast for a full preview of five of the main contenders at this year’s Asian Cup.
Qatar come into the tournament as holders, having won the 2019 edition in neighbouring UAE in 2019.
Having never previously got beyond the quarter finals, their shock 3-1 victory over favourites Japan four years ago seemed to herald a renaissance in Qatari football, and perhaps justified the significant financial investment they have made in the game in recent years.
It’s interesting to note that the two quarter finals they have reached prior to that famous victory in Abu Dhabi also came in tournaments held in the Middle East (2000 in Lebanon & 2011 in their home country).
Qatar finished bottom of their group the last time the competition was held outside their own region (2015 in Australia).
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Since their disastrous World Cup campaign on home soil, The Maroons have had a mixed set of results in the last 12 months, winning just five of their 17 games.
However, two of those wins came against Jamaica in a friendly in June, and Mexico in the Gold Cup in July.
They also managed a creditable draw at home to Russia in September and followed this up with two resounding World Cup Qualifying victories in November, beating Afghanistan and India respectively.
Their most recent warm up game with Jordan last week, where they lost 2-1 at home to a team ranked 29 places below them in the latest FIFA rankings, will be a concern.
Players to Watch
Left winger Akram Afif has scored 26 goals for his country in 96 appearances since his debut as a 19 year old in 2015.
The 27-year-old provided 10 assists (a tournament record) in Qatar’s victorious 2019 Asia Cup campaign, plying his trade in Spain & Belgium before returning to current team Al Sadd in the Qatari Stars League in 2018.
Striker Almoez Ali is a goal machine up front, having scored 50 goals in 97 appearances for his adopted country, including 8 goals in his last 4 games.
Top scorer at the 2019 Asian Cup with 9 goals (another record), the Sudanese born 27-year-old qualifies to play for Qatar through his mother. Ali plays his football in Qatar for national champions Al-Duhail.
Goalkeeper Saad Al-Sheeb was an ever present for Qatar four years ago, and has made 77 appearances for his country since debuting in 2009.
The 33-year-old conceded just one goal in seven games in the 2019 event, earning him the ‘Goalkeeper of the Tournament’ award. He also plays for Al Sadd in the Qatar Stars League.
Manager in Focus
Spanish coach “Tintin” Marquez Lopez was appointed to the role in December 2023, just weeks before the tournament.
The Barcelona native took over from ex Portugal & Iran manager Carlos Queiroz, who was controversially dumped after just 12 games in charge.
Lopez has coached in Spain, Belgium & more recently in Qatar’s Pro League.
Ranked 58th in the FIFA rankings, Qatar will be confident of getting out of Group A, with their fixture against Lebanon (107th) being the tournament opener, followed by Tajikstan (106th) and a tricky closing fixture against China (79th).
Should they win their group, the Qataris have a favourable draw as they aren’t scheduled to meet a group winner until the semi-finals (read into that what you will).
As such, the holders’ game against China could decide their fate, with a predicted semi-final berth there for the taking if they top Group A.
Given their recent form, and the strength of the other teams in the competition, a semi-final is about as far as they should go, even on home soil.