Qatar will take on Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup on Thursday, in what is a highly-anticipated contest between two of the biggest teams in the region.
Before the blockbuster tie at the Al Janoub Stadium, which is slated for 8pm, Iraq will face Bahrain in the first semi-final at the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium in Duhail.
Both Qatar and Saudi have had a similar path to the last four. Having lost their opening matches, they bounced back in the next two games to cruise into the knockout stage.
After a shock 1-2 defeat to Iraq, hosts Qatar brushed past Yemen 6-0, before beating the UAE 4-2 in an equally dominating fashion to finish second in Group A.
Saudi had slumped to a 1-3 loss to Kuwait, but were back to their best as they beat Bahrain 2-0 and defending champions Oman 3-1 to top Group B. Both teams have won the Gulf Cup three times each, with Qatar last winning the title in 2014 in Riyadh, while the Saudis haven’t won the regional competition since 2003 in Kuwait.
The last times these two teams faced each other, Qatar beat Saudi 2-0 in the group phase of AFC Asian Cup in January, which the former went to win.
Such is the anticipation for the match that, Qatar Football Association (QFA) confirmed tickets were sold out inside 24 hours, with people lining up at various locations in the country and also rushed online to buy tickets.
Qatar coach Felix Sanchez, while acknowledging that the support of the home fans will play a big part, said Saudi will be a tough test for the Asian champions. “It’s always nice to play under pressure in front of your fans,” said the Spaniard.
“At this point in the competition, you cannot make mistakes, we are playing against a strong team, we will try to play our game, we have our strengths and we will do our best to get a strong result. At this point, every game is a final if you lose you will be out so we have to be at our best,” he added.
Qatar will once again rely on newly-crowned Asian Player of the Year Akram Afif, who has been in sublime form and scored a brace against the UAE. Abdelkarim Hassan, Almoez Ali and captain Hassan al-Haydos will also have to play a key part for the hosts.
Saudi’s fortunes will depend on eight players from Al Hilal, which won the AFC Champions League last month. Hattan Bahebri and Salem al-Dawsari will pose problems upfront, while winger Salem Mohamed al-Dosari has also been in good form.
Green Falcons coach Herve Renard, who has previously led Zambia and Ivory Coast to African Cup of Nations glory, there is nothing much to separate both the teams. “We always have a special conversation with the players before the games, when you are the coach you think about your team and your opponent. We are playing the champions of Asia but they also have to respect Saudi Arabia, it will be difficult for us but we have prepared well,” the Frenchman said.
Meanwhile, it will be an intriguing encounter between Iraq and Bahrain in the other semi-final. While Iraq are the only unbeaten team in the competition, Bahrain have not lost the West Asians in their last three meetings.
Iraq coach Srecko Katanec said his side’s never-say-die spirit is makes them a stand out team. “All the players are working towards the same objective and hope we make it. The thing with Iraq is the spirit we have. But you never understand what the players do under pressure. If we have experienced players it’s easier,” said the Slovenian.
Bahrain, who are yet to win Gulf Cup title, entered the semi-final after a thrilling 4-2 win over ten-time champions Kuwait in their last group match. “We are preparing knowing that we are playing against one great team. We will do well for sure. We are now among the top four teams in the tournament and we are very proud,” said the Bahrain Portuguese coach Helio Sousa.
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