With just a year to go for their World Cup debut at home, the Qatar team is starting a crucial journey towards preparation for the football showpiece event. Thanks to a well-planned strategy in place, the Maroons have travelled length and breadth of three continents as they sharpen their skills ahead of the World Cup.
Since becoming Asian Champions in 2019, Qatar under Felix Sanchez have gone on to play in Copa America, CONCACAF Gold Cup and UEFA World Cup qualifiers with varied success. And now as they enter into final stretches of preparation, the FIFA Arab Cup – which starts in Qatar from Tuesday – will serve Sanchez and his men another opportunity to test their skills against quality opponents.
The tournament itself is a dry run for Qatar as the country gears up to host the World Cup. And Qatar players will get a firsthand experience of six magnificent stadiums, which are set to host matches in the marquee event next year.
But on the field, Sanchez will be desperate to get his tactics and formations right during the Arab Cup, which they have never before. Qatar under Sanchez has done exceptionally well but off late the standards have slipped. Qatar have not won since the 3-2 win against El Salvador in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-final in June and are on an eight-match winless streak.
In Europe, Qatar has run into strong opposition, giving them a taste of things to come. They were beaten heavily by Portugal, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland, while only managing to draw against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.
They found it tough against the physically stronger European opponents, who overpowered Qatar in the midfield and forced them into defensive errors. In the Arab Cup, Sanchez will hope to overcome those mistakes. Fourteen of the Qatar players who won the Asian Cup two years ago will turn out at the Arab Cup, which will give Sanchez enough experience in his squad.
The hosts open their campaign against a well-drilled Bahrain side at the Al Bayt Stadium Tuesday, with tougher tests against Iraq and Oman to come in Group A. “The Arab Cup is an important preparation for the team ahead of the World Cup,” Sanchez said Monday.
“We have the resolve to win this tournament and we will give everything [to win the title]. We want to make a good start in the tournament. The opening matches are always difficult, which makes this match an important one. We have prepared well,” the Spaniard added.
Bahrain have punched above their weight in recent times, having won the Arabian Gulf Cup in Doha in 2019. Coached by Portuguese Helio Sousa, they will be no pushovers for Qatar, who are struggling for form.
The Qatar coach admitted Bahrain will be a strong opposition and will give them a stern test. “Yes, we aspire to win the title, but we have to take one step at a time. We respect the Bahrain team, they are a strong team and have won Gulf Cup before in Doha and has some quality players in its ranks. We will give our best to make our fans proud and we are looking forward to fans to back us during the tournament,” Sanchez said.
The Spaniard said his team will approach each group stage match like a final. “We have played many times against all three group teams. It is not going to be easy, history tells us that. We will have to play each game like the final to get points in order to reach the next stage. We have to play very good three games to be with the level of opposition,” Sanchez said.
Meanwhile, Bahrain coach Sousa is under no illusions about the task that lies ahead but is confident his team can beat the hosts. "The Qatar team will be difficult to play at home and in front of their fans. They have been preparing for the World Cup for more than six years, they have participated in the biggest events – the Gold Cup, Copa America and UEFA qualifiers. They are an experienced team and have been exposed to playing different styles of football from all continents. These made them improve as a team. But tomorrow the score will be 0-0 at kick-off and we're ready to beat them,” he said.
“The tournament is an opportunity to see the team develop and grow by playing against tough opponents. This is the first time that we are going to play Qatar, while we played against other teams. We will take advantage of this competition to continue to grow as a team,” Sousa added.