A lot was going against Qatar on the eve of their FIFA Arab Cup Opener against Bahrain. The Asian champions have been below-par at best, having not won a game since July, with an eight-match winless streak and some heavy losses against superior European teams.
The last time Qatar beat Bahrain in a competitive game was in 2002. Felix Sanchez’s men are also chasing history with Qatar seeking their first Arab Cup title – albeit they have played in the tournament only twice before, in 1985 and 1998. In the latter, which they also hosted, they finished runners-up.
So history and form was against Sanchez and his men last night. But the moment Abdulaziz Hatem’s header found the net at the electric Al Bayt Stadium, all seemed forgotten and Qatar’s preparation for next year’s World Cup at home was back on track.
The narrow 1-0 win against Bahrain at the packed Al Bayt Stadium last night gave the Maroons a good start to their FIFA Arab Cup campaign. While the win was far from perfect, it allowed Sanchez some breathing space after a difficult last few months.
The hosts, who are favourites for the title, were not fluent in the first half but put in a much-improved performance in the second half. The 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup champions put up a strong resistance and on another day could have nicked a point, which Sanchez later acknowledged.
"We know Bahrain is a very good team. They have been doing well in the last two-three years, a much organised team with top quality players. I think we played a good game. The first half was a little difficult because the opening game of any tournament is not easy. But I think we had better chances and we deserved the three points," the Qatar coach said.
With just a year to go before the historic World Cup at home, Qatar players experienced a glimpse of what could be on offer at the showpiece event. The Al Bayt Stadium staged a stunning opening ceremony, with a 60000-capacity crowd treated to jaw-dropping pyrotechnics display along with some beautiful choreography and performances that featured traditional themes, scenes and costumes from the Arab region.
The opening ceremony featured 220 dancers, 75 orchestra performers and 45 FIFA Fan Leaders representing 48 different countries as the Al Bayt stadium came alive. All these fanfare – and much more – is what Qatar players will experience in a year’s time.
"Playing at this stadium, I think, it's an experience for us,” said Sanchez. “As I have said before, to play in this tournament is like training for the World Cup. So, I think it's a good experience to have one year before the World Cup,” the Spaniard added.
Expectedly, the players took time to get into the groove at the start of the match with fans still awestruck by the opening ceremony. With captain Hassan al-Haydos – returning from injury – and experienced Abdelkarim Hassan on the bench, midfielder Mohamed Waad and Homan al-Amin making the starting XI.
Bahrain had the first real opening in the game when in the seventh minute Mahdi Alhumaidan failed to connect a header from a close range. A lot depended on Qatar’s star striker Akram Afif and he was the star of the show yesterday.
The host’s went closer in the 18th minute with Waad being thwarted by the Bahraini keeper Sayed Mohamed Jaffer, who made amends for clumsy clearance in his first attempt. While Afif – 2019 Asian player of the year – dictated the play creating several goal-scoring chances, Qatar failed to find the net in the first half.
At the one hour mark, Boualem Khoukhi’s header bounced over the cross before Afif's sumptuous cross set up the goal for Qatar. A whipped cross from Akram Afif was met expertly by Hatem, who charged in to power a header and send the crowd into raptures.
Bahrain did come close in the closing stages but Qatar held out for the remainder of the match, including seven minutes of injury-time to seal a morale-boosting victory.
Up next for Qatar is Oman, who yesterday were held to a 1-1 draw by Iraq. Qatar are on top of Group A after the first round of matches, but with Oman and Iraq to come next, qualification to quarter-finals is still not done. The top two sides from each of the four, four-team groups’ progress to the quarter-finals.
“All the teams are equal so we have to play at our best. So let's hope that we can recover after today’s game and be ready for the next one,” Sanchez said.