Qatar completed a memorable year on the pitch as they defied the odds to comeback and beat hosts Saudi Arabia in this month’s Gulf Cup final. With the world’s eye firmly fixed on the ongoing soap opera being the 2018 World Cup, Qatar have quietly gone about their business to terrific effect in 2014, impressing in a number of regional competitions before romping to victory in Riyadh.
The final illustrated the true grit in which Qatar had possessed throughout the tournament, bouncing back from an early Saud Khariri header for the hosts, to level almost immediately through centre back – and captain for the final – Ibrahim Majid in similar fashion. To complete the comeback, a fine winner from Boualem Khoukhi, who’d been kicked off the park all match only to come up with the goods to seal Qatar’s first Gulf Cup title in 10 years.
Khoukhi personally had an eventful tournament, going into the tournament on a wave of hype after an impressive run through the national ranks before, being selected ahead of the injured national hero Sebastian Soria, firmly thrusting the nation’s expectations onto his young shoulders.
In truth, Khoukhi didn’t have the worst of tournaments, but at times such a great step up in class had him looking lost and fragile as a lone forward. After flitting in and out of the team, he finally showed his worth netting in the final match, going on to guide the team home into victory in a special second half showing.
The Qataris were far from unexpected victors, but they battled against injury with influential playmaker Khalfan Ibrahim joining Soria on the treatment table before the tournament, and regular captain Bilal Mohammed being struck down before the final. They also had to come up against the hosts, not only in the opening match of the tournament but also in the final, where they emerged unbeaten over the two ties.
They started with a 1-1 draw against the Saudis in what was a cagey opening contest, the hosts’ nemesis Majid scoring his first of two against the Falcons, before they continued to stutter in subsequent 0-0 draws against the unfancied Yemen and Bahrain. With that they crawled through against the odds, not picking up a single win and only scoring a solitary goal in the group stage.
The semi-finals finally saw Qatar wake up. After going one behind to Oman, an Al-Haydos penalty before half time followed by the introduction of Ali Assadalla turned the contest and their whole tournament around, finally illustrating their attacking capabilities on the counter in a 3-1 win, breezing through to the final stage against their initial group opponents Saudi Arabia.
While Qatar hardly pulled up any trees on their route to the final, Saudi Arabia revelled in their position as hosts, exploding after the cautious 1-1 draw with Qatar, beating Bahrain easily 3-0 before edging past Yemen 1-0. Goal poacher and Asian Player of the Year nominee Nasser Al-Shamrani was at his clinical best, as was eventual MVP winner Nawaf Al-Abid who joined Al-Shamrani on the score sheet in the semi-final classic encounter with UAE.
The Saudis strolled into a 2-0 first-half lead before the Emirati’s hit back with two second half goals sending them seemingly into an enthralling extra-time contest. That was before Salem Al-Dawsai thrashed home a long range effort to send the stadium and nation into raptures, setting the path through to the Gulf Cup final.
As hosts, a final appearance was expected by the nation with what had come before a realistic shot at the title ahead of travelling to the Asian Cup in January. While the talents of Al-Abid have seen him all but cement a place in Saudi’s starting line-up for the competition, a couple of their regular stars failed to light up the final, leaving a disappointing after taste for those home supporters who had attended the final in Riyadh.
Further fan disappoint was felt in the semis, as reigning champions UAE exited earlier than expected. The Emiratis failed to ever remain at their attacking best; while there were clear bright spots through golden boot winner Ahmed Ali Mabkhout, who is starting to look like a real continental star, and through playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, whose genius in the UAE midfield was cut short through injury, UAE overall looked short of their best. UAE will go into 2015 with high hopes, but added consistency is still needed to successfully compete in Australia.
Fellow semi-finalists Oman conversely performed above what was expected after a slow start to their group phase. Back-to-back draws were followed by a spectacular 5-0 victory over Kuwait to make their way through to the semis. A hat-trick through Said Salim stole the headlines, but great work during the tournament from Mohammed Al Seyabi and Raed Ibrahim Saleh, who conjured a stunning volley in the semi-final defeat to Qatar, offer greater hope for the national team going into the new year.
Of those who exited through the group stage it was the familiar tale of frustration and disappointment. Yemen arguably came out of it the best as the lowest rank side in the competition after defying the odds to hold Bahrain and Qatar before only narrowly losing to the hosts. It was a similar story for fellow Group A opponents Bahrain who also picked up two 0-0 draws either side of a comprehensive 3-0 loss to the Saudis.
In Group B it was a much more enthralling contest, as Kuwait, our underdogs for a final push started well, beating Iraq in the final minutes courtesy of a stunning finish from Fahad Al-Enezi before an impressive 2-2 draw with UAE. However, in need of only a point from the final match, the Kuwaitis collapsed going down 5-0 to Oman and finished the tournament with the Gulf’s worst defence.
The biggest disappointment came in the shape of Iraq, who were completely off the boil throughout despite fielding a strong on paper, youthful line-up. They didn’t ever seem to get out of first gear, only registering one point over Oman and finishing bottom of the pile in Group B.
The Gulf Cup grows in popularity with every edition. Its 22nd hasn’t broken with tradition, with some real glimmers of quality being beamed around the world. For observers it also highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the region when it comes to competing for the Asian Cup in January.
While individual brilliance was on show with a number of sensational personal and team goals, attacking flair was often stunted by some cautious and, at times, brutal defensive tactics. It remains to be seen if this year’s Gulf champions Qatar can reassemble with their absent stars and make a real fist of toppling the established order in Australia.