Gulf Cup: Qatar seek winning start as depleted Iraq hope for a ‘surprise’

Eight regional sides, all itching to have their hands on the coveted trophy, are set to begin their quest at the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup which kicks off today with Asian champions Qatar taking on Iraq in the opening match.

Team Qatar goes into today’s opener with an upper hand owing to their phenomenal run of form this year but coach Felix Sanchez is not taking things for granted.

The Spaniard, who coached Al Annabi to their maiden Asian Cup triumph in February, wants his players to keep aside all their achievements and focus on the opening match of the eight-nation tournament at the iconic Khalifa International Stadium, which kicks off at 7:30 pm.

After winning the Asian Cup in the UAE, Qatar impressed on their Copa America debut and our currently leading their group in joint qualifiers for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and the 2023 Asian Cup.

“This is a new tournament and we have to play from scratch as things here are different,” Sanchez told a pre-match press conference while playing down the ‘favorites’ tag.

“After Afghanistan’s (qualifying event) match, the team has been preparing well and we are ready for the Gulf Cup. It is not going to be an easy match as Iraq has a strong side who plays well,” he added.

The three-time champions, Qatar head Group A, which also has the UAE and Yemen, and Sanchez said even the first stage of the event is a tough challenge.

“Our goal is to advance from game to game. We know that UAE and Iraq are very stubborn opponents and we have to play seriously for 90 minutes and adapt to the circumstances,” Sanchez said at a packed press conference yesterday.

Sanchez stressed that today’s opening match against Iraq holds the utmost importance as his team seeks rare trophy double this year.

“We started well in the Asian Cup and we managed very good results after that match. In such Gulf Cup tournaments when there are four teams, winning the opening will give you a boost,” said the Qatari coach.

“We must admit that the beginning is difficult, but winning it pushes you forward and this has been experienced in the Asian nations.

“It is very important but not decisive, there are also other factors too,” Sanchez pointed out.

‘Good practice for FIFA World Cup’

Sanchez said expectations from the home fans will help Qatar prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“In order to prepare for the World Cup we must play such matches,” Sanchez said.

“Playing in Doha in these competitions is important with the support of the Qatari fans and we hope this will motivate us to offer a good tournament,” he added.

Asked whether his team would be under pressure due to expectations of home fans, Sanchez said yesterday: “It is good to play under pressure in the Gulf Cup, as we did in the AFC and Copa America. We have to deal with each game separately.”

To a query, the Spanish coach admitted that it was a difficult task for him to finalize the team.

“All the players are doing well and have different profiles. Selecting the squad has been a difficult task,” he said.

Iraq hopes to spring ‘a surprise’

Iraq’s build-up for the Gulf Cup has not been ideal as they have come to Qatar with just 11 players and two goalkeepers due to injuries and non-availability of players who are busy with Al Shorta Club’s commitments.

“It’s a funny situation for us. It is hard to have so few players, so it is very difficult to predict what will happen,” Iraq coach Srecko Katanec said yesterday.

“The Gulf Cup is a good opportunity to have new players in the squad, but all the players are aware that the opportunity they were given was well deserved,” Katanec said.

The Slovenian coach, however, said despite problems in the build-up, Iraq has the potential to pull off a good result against the hosts.

“It’s football and anything is happening in this sport. You cannot predict results in football and we hope for best results,” said Katanec.

“To play against one of the best Asian teams is wonderful and the atmosphere here is very wonderful, tomorrow (today) everything is possible and our situation is difficult but I have no excuses,” he added.

The other match today will be played between Yemen and the UAE.

By Fawad Hussain I The Peninsula

Edited by Black Coffee

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