July 13 – Qatar will make its Concacaf Gold Cup debut tonight at the BBVA Stadium in Houston, Texas. Their opponents will be 2018 World Cup qualifiers Panama.
It is an interesting cross-confederation opener. Qatar are the AFC’s Asian Cup Champions and took notable scalps in the form of Japan and South Korea on the way to that title in 2019.
It was a surprise win but they were undoubtedly good for it with an exciting and dynamic young team led by the prodigious goal scoring talent of Almoez Ali and his almost telepathic partnership with mercurial winger Akram Afif.
Ali hammered in an Asian Cup record nine goals in 2019 and was named the tournament’s best player, while Afif set a new tournament record with 10 assists.
Qatar are a team that are being polished for their home World Cup in 2022 where they are expected to be as shiny and exciting as the eight new stadia that are being built to host the finals.
Gold Cup in the US will be a measure of their progress since the 2019 win. Qatar are in a tough group with Honduras – who pushed Mexico to the wire in the Nations League semi-finals in June – and Grenada.
For Qatar and coach Felix Sanchez, the Gold Cup is an important measure of how far his team has developed since 2019. Last year they played at the Copa America and failed to get a win. They will be expecting a lot more this July in the US, with qualification from the group a bare minimum.
Their preparation has been encouraging. Basing their camp in Pula, Croatia, they beat their hosts 3-1 at the end of June 30, before winning 1-0 result against fellow Gold Cup participants El Salvador four days later.
Panama in contrast are going through a rebuilding of their own after the 2018 World Cup. In the 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League they opened the door to a number of younger players, backed up by key veterans in Adolfo Machado, Gabriel Torres, and captain Harold Cummings.
Panama have a history of long runs in the knockout stage of Gold Cups. Qatar are still writing their history, though it has been a pretty impressive start.
The first job will be to get out of Concacaf’s Group of Death.
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