Qatar World Cup Profile | Can a settled side and star man Akram Afif help the hosts compete?

The Plan | The Qatar Stars League has been on pause since the middle of September as the national team entered an early and intensive pre-tournament training camp. The national coach, Félix Sánchez, has enjoyed the luxury of working with his side in Vienna and Marbella, taking in friendlies against Canada, Chile, Nicaragua and Guatemala. A lack of preparation can be no excuse for the hosts.

They kick off the World Cup having played 10 European friendlies having already won the 2019 Asian Cup, performed well at the 2019 Copa América and reached the semi-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup. There were suggestions Sánchez’s side had actually peaked too soon, particularly after being overwhelmed by Serbia and Portugal last year and then losing 2-0 to Canada last month. But a 2-2 draw with Chile has renewed optimism.

Familiarity is their strength and Sánchez has long employed either a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 system, the former designed to retain the ball, the latter to counter against it. This is a side brimming with technically proficient players, Akram Afif buzzes in behind the predatory Almoez Ali while the ball is funnelled down the left-channel for the galivanting Homam Al Amin.

This is a lightweight side, however, and how they fare without the ball against their imposing Group A opponents – the Netherlands, Ecuador and Senegal – is a big concern. “Tough matches await us in the tournament,” Sánchez told AFP recently. “We will face very strong teams – teams that are used to being in the World Cup. If we display our best, we will be able to compete.” You won’t hear much more than that from the team right now. Sánchez has his squad in complete isolation in Marbella with Diario AS saying that when Liverpool were based there ahead of the 2019 Champions League final you at least saw them go for a bike ride.

The Coach | Félix Sánchez has been in Qatar since 2006 and has worked his way up from the Aspire Academy, through the Qatar youth teams before landing the senior job in 2017. He failed to guide them to the 2018 Russia World Cup but the 2019 Asian Cup triumph more than made up for that disappointment. The Catalan has no club experience but few boast his knowledge of Qatari football. It has to be said, however, that the hosts would have hoped another Catalan of exalted status would have been in the dugout in Qatar, a certain Mr Xavi Hernández…

Star Player | Akram Afif (Al Sadd). Qatar’s starboy is coming back into form at just the right time. Injuries and a rumoured falling out with Xavi towards the end of his Al Sadd spell had led to a loss of consistency for Al Annabi but the recent friendlies have indicated he is primed for the World Cup. An electric forward, on his day Afif can beat any defender and justify his status as one of the best players in Asia. “He’s an unbelievable talent, a big player. I have told him many times that he’s an amazing player,” Xavi said of Afif after winning the league title in 2020.

Unsung Hero | So much rests on the shoulders of Al Duhail’s Bassam Al Rawi as the central pillar of the defence but his head could also turn out to be crucial. The centre-back is a big set-piece threat and that will be an avenue to goal for the hosts. He’s diminutive but very combative and he’ll set the tone when they’re under pressure so if he stands firm, so will Qatar.

Probable Line-up 5-3-2 | Al Sheeb – Pedro Miguel, Boualem Khoukhi, Bassam Al Rawi, Abdelkarim Hassan, Homam Al Amin – Abdulaziz Hatem, Hasan Al Haydos, Karim Boudiaf – Akram Afif, Almoez Ali

Qatar Stance | The tournament organisers have been steadfast in their approach to criticism, pretty much from the day their winning bid was announced. Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary General of Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), is the public face of the Qatar World Cup and whenever questioned on topics such as LGTB and migrant workers he has repeatedly expressed that all are welcome, and that the tournament has accelerated major social and labour reforms. “Everybody is welcome in Qatar. The purpose of the tournament is to bring people of different values and beliefs and cultures together,” Al Thawadi says.

National Anthem | As-Salam al-Amiri translates to Peace to the Emir and was adopted in 1996 after the accession to the throne of Sheikh Khalifa Al Thani. The lyrics speak of national pride, Qatar’s strength when it needs to show strength and peace when it should be peaceful. It was written by Skeikh Mubarak bin Sayf Al Thani and composed by Abdulaziz Nassir al Ubaydan Al Fakru.

Cult Hero | Sebastian Soria is the Qatari Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan-born forward was one of the first players to be naturalised back in 2006, long before the money arrived, and went on to make 123 appearances, becoming Qatar’s all-time top scorer with 39 goals. Across an 18-year career in Qatari football he has played for five club sides and earlier this year hit 200 league goals in his final swansong at Qatar Sports Club. He long led the line of an unremarkable national side, scoring their only goals at the 2007 Asian Cup, a demonstration of how far Al Annabi has come. As a 38-year-old, there is no doubt many fans are sad he won’t appear at this World Cup.

By Ali Rea of via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian

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