The Gulf Cup of Nations in Kuwait, Khaleeji 23, kicks off on Friday with the host nation taking on Saudi Arabia in the opening match before the UAE and Oman face off in Group A’s second fixture. The competition may have been hastily rearranged, but there are still many things to look out for over the next two weeks. here are eight
Omar’s last conquest
The next two weeks could showcase just how much Omar Abdulrahman has outgrown Gulf football. For long eyed by European clubs, but steadfastly refusing to leave his beloved Al Ain, Abdulrahman has recently dropped hints that he might just be ready to make that big move abroad. With Saudi sending a weakened squad to the competition, the UAE have a real opportunity to claim their third Gulf Cup title. A perfect way for the UAE’s, Gulf’s and Asia’s best player to seek new horizons.
Kuwait return from international wilderness
The hosts only recently had a long international ban lifted by FIFA and this tournament provides the perfect opportunity for Kuwait to announce themselves back on the international stage. In the late 1970s and early 80s Kuwait ruled Gulf and Asian football and with a record 10 titles, Kuwait are by some distance the Gulf Cup’s most successful team. Can they reclaim the glory days?
Can Saudi’s youngsters make an impression?
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia on the horizon, Saudi have quite reasonably decided to send a B squad to the hastily arranged competition. With a youthful group of players overseen by Krunoslav Juric – and not senior coach Juan Antonio Pizzi – Saudi are unlikely to win the competition, or even make the semi-finals. That does not mean, however, that Khaleeji23 is without merit, as many fringe players will hope to play themselves in to the World Cup squad even at this late stage.
Bahrain playing the long game
With qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup already achieved, Bahrain will have the luxury to experiment at the Gulf Cup with little of the pressure on some of their more fancied opponents. Kuwait and the UAE will probably see to it that Miroslav Soukup’s men don’t make it out of Group A, but it’s January 2019, not 2018, that Bahrain are looking forward to.
Despite almost unceasing socio-political and logistical problems, Iraq’s footballers rarely fail to deliver when it matters, and the national team has recently played several friendlies on home soil in an effort to convince FIFA the country is ready to host competitive fixtures again. The last of their three Gulf Cup titles came as far back as 1988, but don’t bet against Iraq emulating their 2013 finish of reaching the final.
Time running out for Qatar
The 2022 World Cup may still be five years away, but time is running out for Qatar to stamp their mark on the international stage. A dire qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 – which saw them finish bottom of AFC Group A – means that, in 2022, they will become the first country to host the World Cup having never played in it. With accusations of lack of football heritage and discontent among fans at what they see as massively overachieving team, Qatar are in desperate need of improvement, and fast. A repeat of their 2014 triumph would be a start.
Ali Al Habsi’s goodbye
As one of few Gulf Arab players to play in Europe, Oman goalkeeper, captain and legend Ali Al Habsi is arguably the one of the most important players to ever come out of the region. After a career that has seen play for Lyn Oslo, Bolton, Wigan, Brighton and Reading, Al Habsi is back on familiar territory at Saudi’s Al Hilal. The competition will almost certainly be the last Gulf Cup for the 35-year-old. Oman are unlikely to progress to the knockout stage, but Al Habsi’s last stand should be enjoyed by fans of all competing nations.
Yemen eye bigger picture
Yemen might be the Gulf’s weakest team but the next few months may well produce the country’s most significant football achievement ever. Qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE can be confirmed on March 27, 2018 against Nepal, and coach, players and fans will all have one eye on that big date during the Gulf Cup. An expected group exit is on the cards in Kuwait, but Yemen have bigger fish to fry.