A More Confident Qatar End European Qualifiers Tour with a Draw
After a string of recent losses to football giants Portugal and Serbia, who recently qualified for the 2022 World Cup ahead of the Portuguese, and a resolute Republic of Ireland, fans may have been expecting a less confident Qatar to appear on the pitch opposite Azerbaijan on Sunday evening. But, the seemingly self-assured team from the Middle East met the hosts in Baku head-on in a thrilling end-to-end match. It was the final match of the European 2022 World Cup qualifiers for both teams, and both were determined to end on a high - Azerbaijan in front of a home crowd and Qatar as part of their quest to prepare for the 2022 event. The resulting 2-2 draw wrapped up the competition positively for both teams and, for Qatar in particular, the tournament as a whole should give them a reason to be optimistic.
On the day, Qatar came out against Azerbaijan fighting. The team notched up three attempts on goal within their first seven minutes of the match. Ahmed Alaaeldin's two shots were close, but both missed slightly to the right. Mohammed Waad came closer with an effort that required the Azerbaijani keeper's intervention. Within the next fifteen minutes of the game, Abdelkarim Hassan and Almoez Ali tested the opposition's goalie with a long-range strike and a close-range shot.
The early pressure heaped on Azerbaijan's defence paid off. In the 23rd, Almoez, assisted by Alaaeldin, lined up at the centre of the box and booted home the opening goal into the bottom left corner. Azerbaijan immediately tried to find an equaliser but couldn't find the target. However, two free-kicks later following fouls in the penalty area by Assim Madibo and Alaaedlin and Azerbaijan levelled the score. Emin Mahmudov converted the second penalty in the 37th.
The equaliser spurred both teams into action, which saw a flurry of goal attempts in the final ten minutes of the first half. Neither team hit their mark, and the score stayed level 1-1 into the interval.
Qatar burst into the second half of the game with a strike from Mohammed Muntari two minutes after the starting whistle. However, Azerbaijan's goalkeeper was on hand to make the save. For the next twenty minutes, Azerbaijan became more dominant on the ball, and they stepped up their threat on the Qatari goal. Meshaal Barsham, Qatar's goalkeeper, saved three attempts in quick succession. But, the press of activity in the box finally saw Emin score a brace in the 67th, giving the Azerbaijanis a 2-1 lead.
Qatar was quick to rally, and attempts from Mohammed Wadd, Tarek Salman, Hassan followed over the next few minutes. But, it was Almoez who pulled back a goal for the Maroons with a right footed shot from an Akram Afif assist in the 78th. Both teams took the ball from end to end in the last ten minutes of the game, trying to find the winner, but neither could find the back of the net or break through the other defence.
Qatar, hosts of the upcoming World Cup, were invited to participate in the qualifiers as guests of UEFA to expand their international exposure prior to the 2022 tournament. Having already qualified as hosts of the World Cup, the squad's points during the qualifying competition didn't count. But, the experience gained from playing against some of Europe's top football teams and some of the best players in the world would.
The teams contesting the qualifiers were split into ten groups of between five and six opponents. Each group to play a round-robin of home and away matches to decide which top ten would advance directly to the World Cup and which ten runners up would head to a playoff tournament (in March 2022) to contest the final three slots. Qatar was entered into Group A alongside Portugal, Serbia, the Republic of Ireland, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
On the back of a successful Asian 2022 qualifying tournament finishing top of their group, Qatar started the European competition well. The Maroons kicked off with two back-to-back wins and a draw against Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, and Ireland. Over the summer months, the Qatari squad headed over to North America, where they were guests at the CONCACAF 2021 Gold Cup. The team excelled throughout the competition and, with an unbeaten run against Panama, Grenada, Honduras and El Salvador, they made it to the semi-finals. Only the USA managed to stop the teams progression with a 1-0 defeat - but considering the USA are North America's second-best team and are currently ranked 13th in the world, it was a confidence-boosting showing for the Qataris despite the loss.
The self-assured team returned to Europe in September to continue where they left off. However, in their first match at 'home' against Serbia, ranked 15th in Europe, the Arab's were utterly trounced, losing 4-0. Things got no better when they took on Europe's then number seven and, despite managing a goal against the might of the Portuguese team, they lost 3-1. Severely dented by the losses, Qatar only just managed to hold Luxembourg, with the home advantage, to a 1-1 draw. In October, both Portugal and Ireland, also playing to their home crowds, thrashed the beleaguered team 3-0 and 4-0. And, at the beginning of the November window, Serbia struck again with another 4-0 blow.
The competition that had started so brightly had become a humbling experience. Nevertheless, the squad dusted themselves off for the final match of their tournament and took to the pitch determined to conclude on a positive note. Up against Azerbaijan, equally determined to end the competition well, the Qatari squad seemed to implement some lessons from the defeats they had suffered. An already quality attacking team continued to do what they already do well but, where their defence had been patchy over their previous matches, the backline tightened up and looked far more robust. And, despite going one goal down in the 67th minute, the team pushed forward, creating chances to equalise rather than giving in to panic.
The 2-2 performance against Azerbaijan showed Qatar's grit and determination to come back from disappointment. And, overall, the team demonstrated lessons learned over their European jaunt, hinting that the objectives behind attending the tournament were on their way to being achieved.
In just over two weeks, Qatar is due to host the first FIFA Arab Cup. Sixteen teams from around the Arab world, including Qatar, will play in a Group Stage of round-robin games to determine the top four teams for the knockout stage of quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final. The Maroons will be up against some of the Arab world's best - such as Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. It will be the team's last international tournament before the 2022 World Cup, their final chance to hone their skills and practice their techniques on a global stage. If they can take the positives from the successes they've had over the last year and combine them with the insights gained in defeat, they should do well and complete their final preparations with aplomb.
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