RIYADH: FIFA could on Tuesday barely have asked for a better draw for the 2021 Arab Cup as it produced some mouth-watering matchups.
Tasty clashes include a renewal of one of world football’s fiercest rivalries as Egypt and Algeria cross swords for the first time in more than a decade and Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard faces his old team Morocco.
The draw took place in Qatar, which will host the 16 teams in the group stages, as well as the earlier seven qualification games, in December. The final will take place on Dec. 18 and Saudi Arabia, for one, will have to go past Morocco in Group C if they are to go all the way.
Renard’s inside knowledge of his former team will help as the 52-year-old was in charge of the Atlas Lions from 2016 to 2019, a spell that included an impressive appearance at the 2018 World Cup before he arrived in Riyadh in July 2019.
“I have good memories of the period in which I coached the Moroccan national team,” the French coach said on television following the draw.
“Playing against Morocco means a lot to me, as Morocco will remain in my heart, as I spent three years there, and it was a great time with a great team, and the Moroccan (football) federation strongly supported me, but that is in the past, and now I am the coach of Saudi Arabia.”
For Renard, there is more at stake than the Arab Cup, however. The priority is ensuring that his current team returns to Qatar in 2022 alongside 31 other nations from around the world.
“We will see whether or not we will participate with a full-strength team. If so, we will then strive to reach as far as possible in the tournament, but if we take a team that includes young players, then the goal will be to give them experience.
“I look forward to the future now, where I hope to reach World Cup 2022 with the Green Falcons,” he added.
Morocco are in the same boat in hoping to use this coming competition in order to ensure qualification for a second successive World Cup. Hussein Ammouta will be in charge of the Atlas Lions this December.
The former Wydad Casablanca boss said: “Arab football has developed a lot. So, it will be an important tournament for the national team and the league players to increase their experience. We will be one of the favorites, but it will not be easy, and the players will have to be at their best.”
Completing Group C will be either Jordan or South Sudan and one of Palestine and Comoros. The winners could meet Egypt or Algeria in the quarterfinals. Sparks fly whenever these two north African rivals meet and the clash between Egypt, the team with most African championships and the current continental champions should be one to savor. The last time the two met was back in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals when Egypt ran out 4-0 winners.
Egypt legend Mohamed Aboutrika is excited about the Group D draw and hopes that it will be an opportunity to put behind previous ill-tempered matches between the two rivals.
“I’m very happy to be drawn with Algeria, it’s an opportunity to resolve problems and improve our relationship, respect, and love for one another,” the former Al-Ahly star told beIN Sports.
“I love visiting Algeria very much, people are friendly. I hope the match will be an opportunity to decrease tensions between both nations. I hope all teams will have their top players. I know how difficult it is for players abroad to participate. In Egypt, for example, (Liverpool’s) Mohamed Salah will not be present.”
Algeria will be without their star forward Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City but worrying about who will and who will not be there is for later as there is plenty of football to be played.
Hosts Qatar are in Group A along with Iraq. Bahrain and Kuwait will fight it out for one spot, and it will be an all-Asian affair if Oman eliminates Somalia in qualification. Group B will see Tunisia, the UAE, and Syria fight it out along with one of Mauritania and Yemen.
Despite all the rivalries, Egyptian legend Wael Gomaa is just looking forward to the Arab world coming together to play football.
“Arab teams from Africa can use the tournament as a welcome opportunity to test their squads for the Africa Cup of Nations set to take place in early 2022, whereas those Asian countries which end up qualifying for the World Cup can use the tournament to prepare themselves for the big stage,” he said.
“The tournament will unite fans and teams from across the Arab region, something that no other football competition has been able to do at this scale in the recent past.”