By Brian Beard | 29th APR 2021
Almost there, and we`re talking about the first FIFA World Cup to be staged in the Middle East, next year. As part of that process the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup will be held as a dry run for that seismic event, later this year, between November 30th and December 18th, National Day in Qatar.
Of the 23 participating nations the top nine, based on FIFA rankings of April 2021, will qualify directly into the group stage while the remaining 14 will play seven single-leg matches to produce seven teams to make up the competition total of 16.
In the group stage there will be four sections, each comprising four teams, and they will compete in a round-robin process producing the top two nations who will qualify for the knock-our phase; quarter-finals, semi-finals, third place play-off and final.
The highest rated qualifiers, Oman, will play the lowest, Somalia. Lebanon, the second highest rated nation, will face Djibouti, the lowest ranked and so on.
GROUP A: Qatar, hosts, Iraq, Oman or Somalia, Bahrain
GROUP B: Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Mauritania
GROUP C: Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or South Sudan, Palestine
GROUP D: Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon or Djibouti, Sudan
The Arab Cup will truly be a dress-rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup and will be staged across six of the stadiums purpose-built for the World Cup. The tournament will be a good base for the various coaches to blood younger players and give them the opportunity to progress to the bigger stage in 2022 and rub shoulders with the likes of current giants of Arab football such as Riyad Mahrez and Mo Salah. The Arab Cup will also be great preparation for the Africa Nations Championships which kick off the new year in January 2022.
In the same way the Arab Cup gives hope and incentive to aspiring young players it also presents an opportunity for the smaller nations, like Comoros, who only joined FIFA in 2005, and South Sudan, who are competing in their first international tournament, an opportunity to perhaps lock horns with tournament favourites such as Qatar, Tunisia and Morocco.
Qatar gave themselves, and Arab football, a massive boost ahead of 2022 when they won their first major international title, the AFC Asia Cup. And, as hosts for the Arab Cup, they will be regarded as overwhelming favourites. The national team has had a good run of results over 2020-21 and after a narrow 2-1 defeat to the Korean Republic they won three out of their next four fixtures with their two most recent results being their best for some time.
A 2-1 win over Azerbaijan was followed by a 1-1 draw at home to the Republic of Ireland. Qatar`s star players are Boualem Khoukhi, who has netted eight goals in his 14 international appearances and Mohamed Muntari who has been an international since 2014.
Morocco, who are the reigning Africa Nations Champions, will also be rated as potential winners. Roman Saiss of Wolverhampton Wanderers, who has won 11 caps at centre back is probably the most well known Moroccan player but they do have others.
Noussair Mazraoui is a right-back with Ajax and from the same top European club they also have Hakim Ziyech who is an attacking midfielder with five international goals to his name. Centre forward Ayoub El Kaabi, who plies his club trade with Hebei China Fortune is Morocco`s biggest goal threat with 11 goals in his 14 appearances to date.
Tunisia, who are the highest FIFA ranked nation in the Arab Cup, at 26th, will also be odds-on to at least reach the last four. In their squad they have players such as Hamza Raha, an attacking midfielder currently with Juventus and Olympique Marseilles midfielder Sarf-Eddine Khaoui. Tunisia are currently on an unbeaten run, since October 2019, and have won seven out of their ten internationals scoring 20 goals, conceding just seven.
Then there`s Algeria and Egypt, spearheaded by Ryad Mahrez and Mo Salah, respectively. Two truly world class stars with a cabinet full of medals and trophies.
Algeria, ranked 33 by FIFA, has one of the strongest teams in the competition and had some good results in late 2020; a 2-2 draw with Mexico and a 1-0 win in Nigeria.
Borussia Monchengladbach defender Ramy Bensebaini is one ot Algeria`s most experienced players with 35 caps but they also have Milan midfielder Ismael Bennaler. However, it is up front where Algeria are at their strongest with skipper Riyad Mahrez.
The Manchester City star has scored 19 goals in his 62 international appearances and he has alongside him West Ham United’s Said Benrahmi. Ahead of them Algeria has the deadly, experienced duo, of Lyon forward Islam Slimani, aged 32, with 31 goals in his 72 international appearances, and 33 year old Al Fateh striker Hillal Soudami who has an impressive international strike rate of 23 goals in 52 games.
When one looks at Egypt it can be difficult to look beyond Mo Salah but they also have Premier League players such as Mohamed Elneny, of Arsenal, and Aston Villa’s Trezuguet. And waiting to burst onto the global stage is 23 year old striker Mostafa Mohamed who earned the Golden Boot in helping Egypt`s Under 23s win the 2019 Africa Under 23 Cup of Nations.
No doubt there will be a few form-upsetting results in the Arab Cup but my predictions for the last four are;
Qatar, Morocco, Algeria & Egypt
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association