The 22nd Gulf Cup competition kicks off in Riyadh next week with many seeing this as a mini-dress-rehearsal of January’s Asian Cup for 7 of the West Asian qualifiers. Hosts Saudi Arabia, reigning champions UAE and an in-form Qatar look the likeliest contenders for this year’s crown, while a recent return to winning ways for Kuwait casts them as dark horses for a shot at upsetting the usual balance. Martin Lowe (@plasticpitch) casts his eye over each side competing, with the final set to take place on Wednesday 26th November.
Hosts with plenty of support in the nation’s capital will be under pressure to clinch a fourth Gulf Cup title and their first in over a decade. Realistically one of three sides that will also be expecting a strong run to the latter stages in the Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia have recorded some erratic results over the past few months including an impressive draw against Uruguay followed by a miserable draw with Lebanon. Immensely experienced across the pitch, a high number of their squad gained rave reviews for their performances for Al-Ittihad and eventual finalists Al-Hilal in this year’s Asian Champions League.
Key man: Nasser Al-Shamrani
Predatory centre forward, who has performed emphatically as a penalty box poacher over the past year. At times temperamental and criticised for sly tactics against opponents.
Arguably the most in-form squad at the competition after impressive victories over Uzbekistan and Asian Cup hosts Australia in the last month. Organised line-up with flair on the flanks, they are spurred on by centre forward and skipper Sebastian Soria who has been at the focal point of much of Qatar’s good work. Crashed out miserably of the group stage last year but will be one of the favourites to make it all the way to the final this time around.
Key man: Khalfan Ibrahim
Creative winger who causes havoc with his technical ability to twist opposing full backs left and right. Asian Player of the Year in 2006.
The least successful of the established nations from the Gulf region. Apart from relative newcomers Yemen, they’re the only nation not to have won the regional title in their 21 previous appearances. Their form has drastically picked up in the past year remaining unbeaten since January, notching up decent draws against Uzbekistan and Qatar. Relatively cautious in their approach, Bahrain have proved tough in defence but lacking in attack.
Key man: Ismail Abdulatif
One of Bahrain’s greatest attacking products who has recently moved to the Saudi Pro League. Scorer of the winning goal that sent Bahrain to their World Cup playoff in 2010.
The only side in the Gulf Cup competition not to have qualified for January’s Asian Cup, Yemen are unsurprisingly considerable underdogs for glory in Riyadh. Ranked below the likes of Guam and Bangladesh in recent FIFA World Rankings, many will be writing them off causing a stir in the group stage. Despite losing every Gulf Cup group match last year without scoring, an upturn in performances since then has seen them push some established sides in recent friendlies including a narrow 3-2 defeat and draw against Iraq.
Key man: Ayman Al-Hargi
Raw attacking talent who holds the hope of the nation’s regional progress. For someone so young, he’s already been stationed at a number clubs across the Gulf region, most recently in Bahrain.
United Arab Emirates
Reigning champions who are piggy backing on the success of their domestic league in their hope of Gulf Cup retention and decent progress in January’s Asian Cup. Impressively tight defensively, the Emirati national side has struggled for goals of late but are starting to produce a couple of notable young striking talents in the form of Ahmed Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Ismail who impressed at the 2012 Olympics. UAE have only won two of their eight friendly matches this year, frustratingly drawing four in a row at the end of the summer.
Key man: Omar Abdulrahman
Technically gifted playmaker who is imperative to any attacking exploits UAE can garner. Struggling to be fit to make the competition with a knee injury that kept him out of the October internationals.
One of the youngest squads in the competition, Iraq are building on their success at the last U20 World Cup which saw them reach the semi-finals. Their talents stretch across the globe with players playing in England, Sweden and various West Asian leagues. One of their strongest aspects is the attacking tandem of youngster Mohannad Abdul-Raheem and veteran Younis Mahmoud. Mahmoud remains Iraq’s most likely route to goal despite being without a club for over a year. Troubles in organising friendly competition in the last year has seen them go 7 months without a victory.
Key man: Ali Adnan
Attack minded left back who rose to prominence at the Under-20 World Cup before moving to Turkey with Rizespor. Famed for accurate delivery and direct attempts from dead ball situations.
After being one of West Asia’s leading lights a few years back, Oman have struggled in the run up to this competition. Oman’s golden period in the Gulf Cup came in the last decade where they reached the final three times in succession and clinched the trophy as hosts in 2009, since then they’ve struggled to make a real impact in the early stages. Defeats to two leading lights of world football – Uruguay and Costa Rica – in recent months are hardly disastrous signs, however some have questioned why they haven’t tested themselves against similar strength sides in their Gulf Cup preparation.
Key man; Ali Al-Habsi
Legendary goalkeeper who had a short stint in the English Premier League with Wigan Athletic remains the only prominent overseas based player in the squad. Famed for his exceptional penalty saving abilities.
Lowly ranked in comparison to their competitors, it would be foolish to write off the Gulf Cup’s most successful nation with their domestic game continuing to succeed on the continent. Champions for three years running, Kuwaiti clubs Al-Kuwait and Al-Qadsia have dominated the AFC Cup scene, with much of their success being built around players who have broken through to the national team picture. After excelling for three decades in the Gulf Cup, Kuwait have only won one of the last seven editions of the competition, but will be looking to make at least the semi-finals this time around.
Key man: Bader Al-Mutawa
Experienced goal scorer who was instrumental in Al-Qadsia’s AFC Cup triumph this season, often provides his greatest threat drifting in from the flanks.