BASRA: Memories of the Qatar World Cup are still very fresh in our minds but, for football fans in the Gulf region at least, it is time to move on as there is another international tournament to be played.
The 25th Arabian Gulf Cup kicks off in Iraq on Friday, with eight national teams competing for the title.
The games will be played at two venues: Basra International Stadium and Al-Minaa Olympic Stadium. The action will begin with the host nation taking on Oman on Jan. 6 and end with final on Jan. 19.
Here are eight talking points, one for each of the competing nations, ahead of the big kick-off.
Saad Al-Shehri and his young Saudi stars can work their magic again
With the Saudi Professional League pausing for two months so the Green Falcons could prepare for and then compete at the World Cup — sensationally defeating eventual champions Argentina in their second group match — it was always unlikely there would be another break so soon so that clubs could again release their star players.
This might make it less likely that the Kingdom will pick up its first title win since 2004, especially given other teams have named more experienced squads. However, it will give younger and fringe Saudi players a chance to shine.
Turki Al-Ammar, the 2018 Young Asian Footballer of the Year and one of the few squad members previously capped at senior level, had a starring role when the U-23 Saudi squad won the Asian Championships and has the chance to impress once more.
With the coach of that U-23 team, Saad Al-Shehri, taking charge of the senior team during this competition, and looking to cement his growing reputation, the young Saudis will get the tests they need to help them grow when they face Yemen, Oman and hosts Iraq.
Iraq need stability on and off the pitch
Last year was a disappointing one for the Iraqis as they struggled in the final round of World Cup qualification, and a string of coaches have come and gone. Now, though, they have a chance to begin 2023 in style, on and off the pitch.
The first, and until now only, time the country hosted the Gulf Cup was 1979 and their most recent tournament win came nine years later. As this year’s hosts, success off the pitch is as important to Iraq as success on it and both could give football a boost in the country.
With Basra staging the games, and new Spanish coach Jesus Casas calling on players with proven talent and plenty of experience, the expectations are high.
The likes of Hussein Ali, Dhurgam Ismail, Amjad Attwad and Gothenburg midfielder Amir Al-Ammari have what it takes to lead Iraq to the latter stages and deliver some much-needed good news for fans.
Oman can show they belong among region’s top dogs
After Saudi Arabia, Oman were the best-performing Arab team in the final stages of the road to Qatar. They finished just a point behind Australia, who narrowly lost to champions Argentina in the second round of the World Cup.
Had the Reds been in the other group at the Gulf Cup last time, they might well have gone all the way. Now they are in Group A, Branko Ivankovic’s men are among the favorites, not least because they won the tournament the time before last.
Like his counterpart in charge of Iraq, the wily Croatian coach has named a strong, experienced squad, and there is no better time to show that Oman’s results during the World Cup qualifiers were no fluke.
Energetic Yemen look for their first-ever win
The Eagles are preparing for their 10th appearance at the Gulf Cup still in search of their first-ever victory in the competition. It will not be easy for a team that has not played a game since the first half of 2022.
Proper preparations are also difficult in a country that has been devastated by war for years. A training camp in Saudi Arabia has helped their situation and the squad has also spent time in Egypt.
Coach Miroslav Soukup has spent years in the region and is now in his second spell in charge of Yemen. He has gone for the power of youth, with half of the squad 25 or under, so it should be a great experience for the players — and if they can get that elusive win, so much the better.
Qatar need to start new era on a high
Everyone is aware that the World Cup was a disaster for the host nation, with three defeats in three games. There was a feeling that coach Felix Sanchez had perhaps kept faith too long with the team that won the 2019 Asian Cup, and there was a general expectation that the Spaniard would not be kept on when his contract expired at the end of 2022 — and so it was to be.
The pressure at the World Cup was all too much for Qatar but now, temporarily at least, the man with the responsibility for bouncing back is Portuguese tactician Bruno Pinheiro. He is without the services of such stalwarts as Hassan Al-Haydos, Akram Afif and Almoez Ali, among several others. This leaves opportunities for new blood to restore some pride to Qatari football.
UAE sets off on the road to 2026
The UAE had to watch the World Cup in Qatar, with all its surprises and shocks, from the sidelines in the knowledge that they could have been there, had they not narrowly lost in the play-offs to Australia.
While it is certainly true that they could have been there, whether or not they should is a different matter because, in truth, they were poor throughout the qualification campaign.
Now coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena has had a little time to work with his team, there is a need for a long-term vision, given that more than eight Asian teams will qualify for the 2026 World Cup.
The likes of Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman, stars of the so-called Emirati “golden generation” of the previous decade, are out but there is still ample talent to be found in the squad.
Group B is shaping up to be competitive but winnable — and with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and even Oman eclipsing the UAE on the pitch in recent years, there is some pressure on the Emiratis to succeed in Basra. Ultimately, though, a first World Cup appearance since 1990 remains the main prize they seek.
Kuwait must bounce back from poor year
Kuwait have won 10 out of the previous 24 Gulf Cups but in recent years this former powerhouse of football in Asia — the whole continent, not just the west — have fallen behind teams they used to routinely defeat.
The failure to qualify for the World Cup was expected but not making the 2023 Asian Cup was really disappointing, in particular their loss at home to a young Indonesian team.
That led to Rui Bento taking the reins, which means there are three Portuguese coaches in charge of teams in Group B.
There will be no Bader Al-Mutawa — the 37-year-old talisman who is the most-capped international player in history with 196 caps (a total matched by Cristiano Ronaldo during the World Cup) — and so the Blues need to move on from his era but are still looking for a new identity.
Bento has gone for youth in his squad and there is a sense that this is the beginning of a new journey for Kuwait.
Reigning champs Bahrain look to defend their title
Bahrain might not have the glittering football history of Kuwait but they do arrive in Iraq as defending champions. Their 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the 2019 final will never be forgotten — and it should also be remembered that they reached the last 16 of the Asian Cup that same year, when they were narrowly defeated by South Korea. After a disappointing spell, things were looking up for them.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and all that momentum was lost. Coach Helio Sousa has been in charge for almost four years and, despite a disappointing World Cup qualification campaign, the team is settled, full of experience and more inventive on the ball than many of their neighbors.
After showing on previous occasions that they are capable of upsetting bigger nations at this tournament, Bahrain cannot be counted out this time around.
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