With a quarter-final spot already in the bag, Qatar will hope to sustain their winning momentum in the final Group A game against Iraq on Monday. Irrespective of the result at the Al Bayt Stadium, Qatar will finish on top of the group and that will give coach Felix Sanchez an golden opportunity to start the match with fringe players as the hosts brace up for tougher matches in knockouts against quality opponents.
For Iraq though, a win on Monday will ensure them a place in the knockout stages, with the result of another Group A encounter between winless Bahrain and Oman rendering it inconsequential. Qatar and Iraq have locked horns 35 times, and this 36th meeting promises to be an entertaining one. For Sanchez, entertainment could be the last thing on his mind as the Spaniard will look to give some rest to the jaded bodies of his players.
Having played non-stop – for Qatar or their clubs – this year, Qatar players have visibly suffered from fatigue in the first two matches. In both their narrow victories against Oman and Bahrain, their fitness levels dropped down considerably in the second half. While they maintained their focus despite that and managed to eke out two wins is what makes this squad special in Qatar’s history.
On the eve of the match, Sanchez did stick to the norm to say his team will gun for victory while also hinting at making changes to his starting XI. “We will make our plan against Iraq, surely there will be changes but we will play to win,” said the Spaniard yesterday.
Sanchez confirmed Pedro Miguel, who picked up an injury against Oman, will sit out today with the Qatar coach hopeful the defender would be ready for the quarter-finals.
The Maroons’ possible opponents could be any of Tunisia, the UAE and Syria, with Group B still wide open. Sanchez said his team was confident of taking on any team. “We will be ready to play any team in the knockout stage. We respect all the teams and we think any team we will face in the quarter-finals will be strong,” he said.
On facing Iraq, Sanchez said the four-time former champions have always proved a difficult opponent. The last time these today faced – in the 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup in Qatar – Iraq emerged out as the winners. Sanchez said revenge would not be on his or players mind.
“We are not seeking revenge against them. We lost an important game in the Gulf Cup but here we just want points not revenge,” the 45-year-old said.
“Iraq are tough opponents from what we have experienced in our past matches. We will try to play a competitive game against them. We know if we have to go far in the tournament we have to be at our best in all the matches. We know Iraq needs points to qualify for the quarter-finals and we expect them to be offensive in the match. Iraq has always been a tough side. But we are going to play for a win,” Sanchez added.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s stand-in coach Zeljko Petrovic said he has the belief in his team to beat Qatar and qualify the quarters. In their opening game against Oman, Iraq salvaged a point with an equaliser in the eighth minute of added time and followed it up with a goalless draw against Bahrain.
“Iraq are still in with a chance of qualifying for the next round, so our sole focus is on beating Qatar. It won’t be a walk in the park because we’re coming up against a strong team that has won two games on the bounce, but I have every confidence in my players’ abilities and I’m sure we can come out on top,” said Petrovic yesterday.
“The most important thing is to believe in our ability to win and qualify for the next round. The second thing is to give our best and not have regrets afterwards,” the Montenegrin added.
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