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Qatar breaks through ahead of the Asian Cup: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Qatar breaks through ahead of the Asian Cup: This week in Middle East football

Qatar's midfielder Abdulaziz Hatim (R) takes on Switzerland's midfielder Remo Freuler (2nd R) [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 November, 2018

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Qatar's national football team has emerged as the Middle Eastern nation to follow during the 2019 Asian Cup, writes Uri Levy.
With 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE just around the corner, the recent international break provided the Middle Eastern national teams the final opportunity to test their toolkits in matchplay, before their next convergence at training camps.

Qatar

Surprisingly or not, the most impressive national team from the region in this international round turned out to be the host of the next World Cup - Qatar. Their sensational 1-0 victory against Switzerland, thanks to a last-minute winner from the talented Akram Afif, attracted the attention of many around the world.

If that wasn't enough, they produced another respectable result - a 2-2 draw against Iceland in Eupen, Belgium. Although they have nine dual-nationality players in their squad, it looks like the Qataris are starting to grow their domestic talent pool ahead of their big moment in the floodlights.

Iran

Iran is slowly getting closer to Carlos Queiroz's moment of truth. After more than seven years at the helm, the forthcoming Asian Cup is a serious target for the top-ranked national team in Asia and its Portuguese coach.

A victory over Trinidad & Tobago and a draw with Venezuela were good chances for Queiroz to test the players with whom he will go to this war.

Yet, as always in Team Melli, not everything was about football. Captain Masoud Shojaei was interviewed on Iranian television, criticising the behaviour of the Iranian government towards the national team. He brought up the fact that the national team has had to be supported by Qatar, as the Iranian FA has no funds - despite the World Cup prizes. And if it's the captain saying it, he probably knows the score.

Palestine

Another national team who had a positive international break was Palestine. Al-Fidai managed to beat Pakistan 2-1 on a rainy Friday afternoon in Al-Ram, with a debut goal for Nazmi Al-Badawi and another from Jonathan Cantillana.

"We are working on the chemistry between us currently, but things look good," Abdallah Jaber told The New Arab after the match. "We have a few players who play abroad and the competition and quality are high. We have a very difficult group in the competition - but you know us, we always believe."

UAE

The hosts of the forthcoming tournament were in need of a confidence boost. A goalless draw with Bolivia and a 2-0 victory over Yemen may hev been what Alberto Zaccheroni and his players needed, especially after the loss of Amoory Abdulrahman, who took on a serious injury last month.

Obviously, when the tournament kicks off on January 5, they will still have to upgrade their game.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are quietly preparing for a massive test in the Asian Cup, after Juan Antonio Pizzi's squad picked off some easy rivals in this break, as they tested a variety of new players. A victory over Yemen and a draw with Jordan revealed a solid Saudi team, including Fahd Al-Muwallad who returned to score for the Green Falcons for the first time in eight months.

The million dollar question remains in what state will they arrive for their biggest battle of the Asian Cup group stage - their game against Qatar. The rest is less important.

Iraq

The Lions of Mesopotamia had a relaxing break with only one match against Bolivia. Srecko Katanec appears already to have found his main figures to lead the team in the Emirates, but he still has a lot to work ahead of him, especially following the injury of Justin Meram, the Iraqi-American who plays for Columbus Crew in the MLS.

Yemen

The Yemeni football scene is a story for a movie. A nation whose league has not functioned for more than two and a half years appointed a Slovakian coach, Jan Kocian, who - against all odds - will try to lead a team from the war-torn country to a respectable achievement on the continent’s biggest stage.

The losses against Saudi and the UAE have shown how far behind Yemen are, compared with the region's top teams, but hopefully their spirits will not be dented ahead of the tournament itself.

Jordan

Jordan can be satisfied with their contributions in this international round. A victory against India with a tremendous goal from goalkeeper Amer Shafi - who netted from his own box to make worldwide headlines - and a respectable draw against Saudi Arabia, hint at potential "dark horse" status in the forthcoming Asian Cup, although they face a difficult group with Australia, Palestine and Syria.

Syria

With a month and a half to go, Syria look like a solid team.

A draw against Oman and a victory against Kuwait may not a clear indicator of regional success, but the majority of the squad that dazzled the 2018 World Cup qualifications are here and are in shape.

It will be interesting to watch the likely last dance of the magical trio - Al-Khatib, Khribin and Somah.

Lebanon

As usual, Lebanon has high hopes when it comes to football, but the reality is, as usual, not that impressive. A 0-0 draw against a strong Uzbekistan was a good trial for a defensive formation, but a 3-0 loss to Australia exposed the problems in midfield and in the back line. These flaws are much bigger than may seem at first, especially a month a half before the Asian Cup kickoff.

Miodrag Radulovic and his players have a lot of work and need to ask for a miracle in the UAE.

Oman

The Omanis look solid and quiet and with a tie and a victory they look like a legitimate team to compete at the continental level. There are a few talents among the Sultan Qaboos national team that could surprise in the tournament.

Bahrain

The Bahrainis have no serious aspirations for the 2019 Asian Cup, and the national team is still in search for both method and character. That said, new recruits Ebrahim Alawi and Sami Al-Hosni might yet provide a modest sensation in the Emirates.

Rest of the region

The rest of the region also played football in the past week.
Israel managed to batter Guatemala 7-0 in a friendly, but went on to lose a very important match against Scotland at Hampden Park, 3-2 - meaning the end of the road for them in the UEFA Nations League competition.

In Africa, the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifications were completed with almost a full house of North African and Arab national teams qualifying. 

Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania - for the first time ever - have all secured their spots in Cameroon next summer. Now it is up to Libya to complete the set in the next round of qualifications.


Uri Levy
 runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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