Back on home turf, Qatar start firm favourites
Felix Sanchez's men take on minnows Afghanistan in their first match of the Asian Cup qualifying round today
Playing their first match at home after their historic Asian Cup triumph in February this year, Qatar will begin the quest for retaining their continental supremacy when they take on lowly Afghanistan in their first match of the joint World Cup-Asian Cup qualifying round on Thursday.
Being the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar have a direct entry to the big bash and their focus at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Al Sadd will be on making a good start to their journey towards the 2023 Asian Cup in China.
Qatar and Afghanistan are in Group E of the competition along with India, Bangladesh and Oman.
A total of 40 teams have been divided into eight groups with the toppers and four best runners-up earning direct berths in the Asian Cup final rounds.
- AFC Asian Cup/ World Cup qualifiers
- Thursday’s matches
- Group E
- Qatar vs Afghanistan
- Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, Al Sadd, 7.30 pm.
- Other matches:
- Group A
- Guam vs Maldives
- Philippines vs Syria
- Group B
- Chinese Taipei vs Jordan
- Kuwait vs Nepal
- Group C
- Cambodia vs Hong Kong
- Bahrain vs Iraq
- Group D
- Palestine vs Uzbekistan
- Singapore vs Yemen
- Group E
- India vs Oman
- Group F
- Mongolia vs Myanmar
- Tajikistan vs Kyrgyzstan
- Group G
- Thailand vs Vietnam
- Indonesia vs Malaysia
- Group H
- North Korea vs Lebanon
- Sri Lanka vs Turkmenistan
Qatar, 62nd in the FIFA rankings, are favourites to win the group, but other teams have qualifying ambitions as well, making the upcoming contests interesting and intriguing. Below Qatar, Oman are ranked 87, India 103, Afghanistan 149 and Bangladesh 182.
Coached by Spaniard Felix Sanchez, Qatar played entertaining and exciting football to win the Asian Cup. The Maroons have made further progress since then, competing in the Copa America and gaining valuable experience against tougher opposition.
Afghanistan might not be an intimidating opponent, but Sanchez said he would not take any rivals lightly.
“On paper, yes, we’re the top team, but in football it doesn’t happen that the top teams always call the shots. We respect our opponents but we’ll play in the best way possible to get full points,” said Sanchez on Wednesday.
Placed far apart in terms of rankings and skills, Qatar and Afghanistan have not played each other in recent times. The fact that Qatar are the Asian champions might weigh on the players’ minds, but Sanchez cautioned that it was important to focus on the present while keeping an eye on the future.
“Our win in the Asian Cup was a big step. We showed we’re able to compete and win at the highest level in Asia. But that was more than six months ago and we’ve to move on from those memories. We’ve a long way to go before we achieve our goals. The players are in the right way and are preparing for the big goal in mind,” he said.
Hearteningly for Sanchez, his players are fit and ready to go, having secured some match time under their belts, thanks to the Qatar Stars League. Majority of the players are from Al Sadd, who have already played six matches in various competitions this season. Hassan Al Haydos, Akram Afif, Pedro Miguel, Khoukhi Boualem and Abdelkarim Hassan have all been in good touch and that is bad news for Afghanistan.
“The players have done a good job for their clubs, there’ve been some good matches. The standard has been high and that’s good for the national team. They’re motivated to perform in the best way possible tomorrow,” said Sanchez.
The Afghans, under young coach Anoush Dastgir, are targeting a place in the Asian Cup finals for the first time. South Asian champions in 2013, Afghanistan moved to the Central Asian Zone after 2015. Most of their players compete in lower division leagues abroad and the game on Thursday is a big opportunity for them to rub shoulders with much stronger opponents.
Dastgir, just 29, admitted they don’t have high hopes from this match.
“We’re a young team. Our players are spread all over the world, in Europe, in Australia, in the United States. We’ve had just three days’ preparation for this game. We know realistically, we don’t have a chance,” he said.
The Afghan coach said he had seen Qatar play and analysed their game.
“I’ve seen them at the Asian Cup and also at the Copa America. We know how they play, but we will focus on our game and hope for a good result. A draw will be good for us, but in football miracles do happen and we can also win, why not?” he asked.
Turning dreams into reality is always a tough job, but dreams do offer a starting point, as Qatar know more than anyone else. And that will be exactly what Afghanistan will be trying, come Thursday.