5 things we learned from first round of matches at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup

5 things we learned from first round of matches at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup
Morocco’s defender Badr Benoun, right, heads the ball clear during their FIFA Arab Cup 2021 group match between against Palestine at the Al-Janoub Stadium in Al-Wakrah on Dec. 1, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 02 December 2021

5 things we learned from first round of matches at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup

5 things we learned from first round of matches at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup
  • The 16-nation tournament is a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup with seven of the eight stadiums for Qatar 2022 hosting matches

The first round of eight matches in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup are now done and dusted. Here are five things we learned from the action in Qatar.

Mabkhout’s blank good for UAE

The United Arab Emirates’ 2-1 win over Syria was not just a positive way to start the tournament but it also makes it two wins out of the last two games for the Whites, who had been struggling in the final round of qualification for the World Cup. To taste victory again can only be good for confidence.

On the road to Qatar, star striker Ali Mabkhout has been the go-to man for the goals, understandably so given the fact that he is just a goal away from joining Lionel Messi as the second-highest active goalscorer in international football. It was welcome however that he did not score.

The goals came from elsewhere. Caio Canedo was impressive up front and scored the first. It was a goal that demonstrated that quality deliveries into the area make things happen. 

A great cross from Bandar Al-Ahbabi was headed home. Mabkhout played a big part in the second with a long and direct run that caused problems and resulted in the ball falling to Ali Saleh who made no mistake. Two good goals and now two good wins.

Egypt labor against Lebanon, but have time to improve

Fans in Egypt were a little disappointed with a 1-0 win over Lebanon as they expected to pick up a comfortable win with a three or four-goal margin. Anybody who has been closely following World Cup qualification in Asia would have warned how hard Lebanon can be to play against as Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz, who remembers the Cedars from his time with Iran, did.

The Pharaohs had two-thirds of the possession but struggled to make things happen. The first game of any tournament is not usually when the big boys hit the heights and it is more about getting points on the board.

Queiroz said before the tournament that it will be a chance for some fringe players to play their way into the squad for the upcoming African Cup of Nations. Mohamed Magdy has certainly helped his chances of making the starting 11. The midfielder didn’t just score the winning penalty but created a number of chances at a time when good ones were at a premium. There’s more to come from Egypt.

Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia look ominous

While Tunisia have a handful of European-based players with them in Qatar, the other two North African giants are using only domestic squads. It didn’t make much of a difference in the opening round as they both won 4-0.

Morocco had perhaps the toughest task in taking on a hard-working Palestine team missing a few players of their own. The Atlas Lions were just a class above, with Abdelilah Hafidi really catching the eye with two goals and a fine all-round display.

Algeria dismissed Sudan by the same scoreline. The likes of Baghdad Bounedjah and Hilal Soudani have been in good form for Al-Sadd of Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s Damac respectively and brought that sharpness to the international stage.

Tunisia were far too strong for Mauritania as the 5-1 thrashing suggests. 

There is still a long way to go but there would be no surprise if one of these three teams lifted the trophy in two weeks’ time.

Encouragement for Iraq as spirit returns

A 98th minute penalty kick to salvage a 1-1 draw with Oman ensured that Tuesday was not a day to remember for Iraq, but it was a solid start under Zeljko Petrovic, the interim boss following the recent resignation of Dick Advocaat.

The Lions were lively in the first half and should have gone in at the break ahead after twice being denied by the woodwork. The second half sending off of Yasser Karim halted their momentum and it was no surprise when Oman, who have been performing well in World Cup qualification and have plenty of confidence, took the lead with 12 minutes remaining. 

Yet Iraq did not give up and were rewarded for their efforts with that last-gasp spot kick that was converted by Hassan Abdulkareem in his first game for the country. Some of that old Iraqi spirit looks to have returned.

Lebanon fight hard, and fall short, once more

The 1-0 defeat to Egypt was a familiar story for fans back in Lebanon. The last three games for the national team have seen them come up against some of the best in Asia and Africa in Iran, UAE and now Egypt. All three ended in one goal defeats. 

Against Iran, they were minutes away from a famous victory but conceded twice in  the final moments. Then there was a dodgy penalty conceded against UAE with five minutes left. A penalty against Egypt with 19 minutes to go settled the first game. Once again, Lebanon were competitive against a bigger team as the result shows even if Egypt felt they should have won by a bigger margin.

Given all that has happened in the country in recent years, that the football team can still perform should be a source of pride. Some fans wanted coach Ivan Hasek to try a different game plan however. He went with five at the back, the team sat too deep and there was too much giving the ball away, especially in the first half.

In a game that did not have the pressure and jeopardy of a final round World Cup qualifier and playing Egypt, a tough opponent but without their European stars, was perhaps a chance to try a more expansive game. It is a big ask.