LONDON: The 2021 FIFA Arab Cup kicks off on Tuesday with 16 teams vying for the title in Qatar.
The tournament means different things to different competitors and here are five talking points ahead of it.
1. No Salah but many opportunities for Egypt to step up
For Egypt, the tournament is a big step in preparing to reach another competition in Qatar in November next year.
Carlos Queiroz took the job as head coach in September and led the team to the World Cup play-offs without much fuss. There will be no Mohamed Salah in this tournament and the country’s European-based stars will also be absent.
It will, therefore, be a chance for others to catch the eye of the Portuguese coach and for the well-travelled boss to check the country’s strength in depth.
Ultimately, however, Queiroz is not taking his eyes off the main prizes.
He said: “Our goal in the Arab Cup is to prepare the players for the World Cup qualifiers, and for the Africa Cup of Nations. This does not mean that we will not compete for the trophy, but the first and main goal is the World Cup. Ask any citizen and fan what they want, and they will say the World Cup.”
Any player who excels over the next three weeks could earn a place in the Africa Cup of Nations squad in January.
“We have a base of players from which to choose for the two World Cup qualifiers, and I am prepared to include any player who performs well,” Queiroz added.
2. A chance for Qatar to lift silverware on home soil
The World Cup hosts have played in more competitions than most in the past year or so, appearing at the Copa America and also the Gold Cup, Concacaf’s big tournament.
But with the World Cup taking place on home soil, the Maroons have had to sit and watch as Asian rivals go through the grueling final round of qualification.
The team have an all-Asian group and a strong squad with Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, and all the rest and that should be enough to get past Bahrain, Oman, and Iraq and into the knockout stage.
The Asian champions will be hoping to go all the way and lift the trophy in the final on Dec. 18. Winning silverware in an international tournament on home soil would only boost confidence ahead of the big event in less than a year.
3. Ali Mabkhout can close the gap on Cristiano Ronaldo
The UAE have not been impressive so far in the final round of qualification for the World Cup. The somewhat fortuitous win over Lebanon in November was the first victory in the sixth game in the group. Automatic qualification is not going to happen but a route to Qatar still exists through the play-offs.
The team need to improve, however, and games against Syria, Mauritania, and Tunisia are a great opportunity for Bert van Marwijk to take charge of his team in a competitive tournament but one that does not have the pressure to win that comes with other events.
One issue to be solved is that of Ali Mabkhout. The team is too reliant on the striker but understandably so to an extent, as he has scored 14 goals in 13 games so far this year. With 79 international goals, he is now just one behind Lionel Messi and Sunil Chhetri. If Mabkhout scores twice then he will be the second-highest active international scorer though he will have some way to go to catch Cristiano Ronaldo on 115.
4. Lebanon can find a way to win
On Sunday, Youssef Mohamed, the technical director of the Lebanon national team as well as a former captain, said that the Cedars should aim to lift the trophy. He admitted that it was a long shot but not impossible. After all, in World Cup qualification Lebanon could be, even should be, sitting clear in third place of their group in the final round but four points were dropped late in the games against Iran, and the UAE.
The team need to find a way to make the most of these situations. Coach Ivan Hasek has them working hard, well-drilled, and organized but the Arab Cup is a great opportunity to try a more expansive plan.
Lebanon need to add a little variety to their attack and to try and keep the ball more — their possession rate was a measly 29 percent against the UAE. Had the ball been shared around a little more equally there would have been less pressure on the defense and maybe the whole penalty incident could have been avoided.
5. It is a perfect time for a World Cup rehearsal
A year before the World Cup it is usually time for the Confederations Cup. It was always going to be difficult to have that dress rehearsal with teams from around the world at this time. The Arab Cup, then, will offer a glimpse of how the first World Cup in the Arab world will look.
Fans and journalists will be able to get an idea of what it will be like, after World Cups in huge countries such as Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, to attend a tournament in a small country where it is possible, with a little planning, to watch two games a day.
It is to be hoped that there are some good games but more importantly, a feel-good factor among fans and good atmospheres in stadiums.