One standout feature of this Qatar squad is that they don’t get bogged down by fancied opponents or any external pressure. And, much of that credit goes to head coach Felix Sanchez.
The Spaniard, among many things, has instilled fearlessness, discipline and hunger among the current players – who many call as the golden generation of Qatar football. Most of them have played under Sanchez in the junior teams and they trust him completely, which obviously has helped them transition into senior stage and become Asian champions in 2019.
As they go into the FIFA Arab Cup semi-final against Algeria at the Al Thumama today, Sanchez will be issuing a rallying cry to his players to believe in themselves that they can beat the African champions.
Undoubtedly, despite the exclusion of international stars such as Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani, this Algerian team is still a force to be reckoned with. But a full strength Qatar side at home can beat anyone on their day.
Qatar have played four games and won four of those, the only team with an all-win record among four Arab Cup semi-finalists. After struggling past Oman and Bahrain, they have beaten Iraq and the UAE with breeze. The 5-0 quarter-final thumping of the UAE, with all goals coming in the first half, showed how ruthless the Maroons can be.
But Sanchez will know very well the high press and the pace upfront of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, which troubled the UAE players will not faze the Algerians. Ahead of the game, Sanchez sounded upbeat, terming the match as another ‘opportunity’.
“We have gone through four real tests so far and tomorrow is going to be another real test for us. We will have another opportunity and we will go with the ambition to reach the final,” Sanchez said yesterday.
“We are champions of Asia because we deserve it and Algeria are the champions of Africa because they really deserve it. So it’s going to be a game in which both the teams have one objective. We will give all our efforts,” he added.
There will be a sense of familiarity as the players take the pitch today. While all Qatari players ply their trade at home, Algeria’s key personnel such as Baghdad Bounedjah, Yacine Brahimi, Youcef Belaili, Mehdi Tahrat and Djamel Benlamri also play in Qatar Stars League.
Sanchez was quick to admit that the home team will have no extra benefit for knowing the Algerian players or vice versa. “It doesn’t give us or them any advantage. We are facing an African side, which is the best in their continent. They have a strong team that has a clear idea how to play with high rhythm,” added the 46-year-old.
Both the teams have no injury concerns with the Desert Foxes happier of the two after Belaili and Bounedjah were passed fit for the semi-final. Qatar SC winger Belaili resumed training yesterday despite needing hospital treatment for a head injury after the quarter-finals against Morocco, in which he scored a stunning volley from half line.
Al Sadd forward Bounedjah will also be available after completing the six-day concussion protocol that followed his injury in the group match against Egypt. Yassine Titraoui returns from his suspension as he missed their quarter-final match after getting sent off against Egypt. It will be a selection boost for manager Madjid Bougherra, who might recall Benlamri and Tahrat into the XI.
Bougherra said his boys are ‘raring to go’ against the hosts. “We started preparing for Qatar the next morning after our win over Morocco,” Bougherra said. “Since the beginning we have been preparing for every match as a final. We are lucky to have players who are competitive in their mindset. They know exactly what they need to do. They are raring to go,” he added.
Bougherra believes Qatar will feel the baggage of pressure, having to play in front of a home crowd in a packed stadium. “Qatar is the host country and they are playing in front of home fans. They have a slight pressure but it is normal. We take every game as a final. My team will be giving 200 percent tomorrow to win this challenge,” the Algerian coach said.
“As a coach, it’s always great to know the players and know things about the opponents. But it is the same for Qatar, who know our players as well. It’s an important factor because football is about small details, knowing players, their weaknesses and strong points,” he added.
Interestingly, the most recent encounter between Qatar and Algeria was a friendly that Qatar won 1-0 in 2018. The Algerian Djamel Belmadi was then the coach of Qatar, while Christian Gourcuff was at the helm of Les Fennecs.      
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