(MENAFN- Gulf Times)
Asian champions, FIFA World Cup debutants, host nation, unknown quantity, or the single most prepared side in the tournament? It is safe to say there are many battling, and at times contrasting, narratives surround Qatar national team going into what will in all cases be a historic tournament for them.
Not since Italy in 1934 has any nation hosted the FIFA World Cup having never qualified to the competition, and Qatar will want to avoid the fate of South Africa, who remain the only host country to be eliminated in the group stage. But with only Saudi Arabia and Ghana ranked below them in the most recent World Ranking among the 32 teams, the odds are stacked against them.
An unfancied side even at continental level, Qatar had never progressed past the quarter-finals in the AFC Asian Cup until 2019. But Felix Sanchez's men proved to be a different breed to their predecessors, taking the tournament by storm and cruising to their maiden title with a string of performances that saw them concede only one goal as they bagged 16 and defeated four former champions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Korea Republic and Japan to lift a fully deserved title.
With no involvement in the Asian Qualifiers as hosts, the Maroon filled the past couple of years by participating in the CONMEBOL Copa America Brazil 2019, the CONCACAF Gold Cup 2021 and the FIFA Arab Cup Qatar 2021, reaching the semi-finals of the latter two.
A generation of players whose entire career was built around preparing for Qatar 2022 will be under immense pressure to perform, but with an unmatched level of stability and big crowds behind them this winter, anything is possible.
Sanchez's approach and tactics
Having been recruited from Barcelona's famed La Masia Academy to work at the newly setup Aspire Academy in Qatar back in 2006, Sanchez was identified as the man to develop and lead a generation of youngsters from the academy to form the core of the side that will make history for the Arab nation.
Slowly but steadily, he built a side in his image, ensuring his first foray into management is a memorable one as he continuously improved on the group that he led to win the AFC U19 Asian Cup back in 2014, adding experience or bursts of youth where needed while creating a close-knit family atmosphere to put together the Qatar team of 2022.
The foundation of Sanchez's side is a five-man defence, ensuring his goalkeeper is well protected. The Spaniard has frequently experimented with different combinations in midfield and attack, although one duo - Akram Afif and Almoez Ali - remain crucial to his offensive strategy, whether the partner up as a front two or with Ali leading the line and Afif playing wide on the left.
Qatar are often happy to cede possession, even against theoretically inferior opponents. In their title-winning AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign they averaged 49 per cent possession, ranking outside the top ten teams in the tournament in that metric. The percentage was 45 per cent in the Gold Cup 2021 in which they reached the semi-final, tenth amongst all teams. Their clinical nature without the ball is best embodied by their 39 per cent possession in the 3-1 win in the final against Japan and 49 per cent possession in the 4-0 hammering of hosts the UAE.
Key Player: Almoez Ali
Qatar's conservative approach on the pitch means chances are likely to be few and far between as they take on Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands in Group A, putting even more emphasis on Ali's exceptional eye for goal. The 26-year-old is already third in his country's all-time scorers list, his 39 strikes putting him just three shy of record holder Mansour Muftah.
In 2021, Ali joined Mexico's Luis Hernandez to become the second player in history to finish as top scorer in two different continental competitions, having done so at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 with nine goals and the CONCACAF Gold Cup 2021 with four. Having previously had stints in Austria and Spain, Ali now plies his trade at home with Al Duhail, where he enjoys mentoring from one of the game's all-time great forwards in Hernan Crespo, his club's head coach.
One to Watch: Homam al-Amin
“Never change a winning team”, goes the established wisdom in football. So, for coach Sanchez to make a permanent change to his continental champions to integrate a player just barely out of his teenage years into the starting XI must speak volumes about the talent in question. Al-Amin's rise to stardom has been as rapid as his raids up the left flank.
The full-back, an Aspire Academy graduate who trained at Belgian side Eupen before returning home to star for Al Gharafa, broke into the side, forcing his manager to move 2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan from the wingback position he had previously made his own to become a left-sided centre-back. Having racked up over 20 caps already, Al-Amin will be hungry to prove his manager right with his energetic displays down the left, although a lack of experience could prove his biggest challenge come November.
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