Qatar’s 2021 Gold Cup Final Dreams Come To An End
The Qatar National Football Team entered the 2021 Gold Cup in America as a guest of CONCACAF, the football confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean. The squad joined fifteen of the confederation's top teams at the tournament in a battle to be crowned continental champions. Drawn into four groups of four, the teams played a single round-robin of games within their respective groups to determine which top eight squads (two from each group) would advance to the quarter-finals. Qatar beat their group opponents Grenada 4-0 and Honduras 2-0 and drew against Panama 3-3 to head to the next stage. In the quarter-finals, a straight knock-out round, the Maroons took on El Salvador – their 3-2 victory carried them through to the semi-finals alongside Mexico (ranked by FIFA as 11th best team in the world), the United States of America (ranked 20th) and Canada (ranked 70th). In the semis, Qatar was paired against the USA in the race to the final.
Prior to the semi-final matches, the predictions for the game between the 2019 Asian Champions and the USA were mixed, though heavily weighted towards a win for the Americans. The USA are the higher-ranked team – Qatar are currently ranked 58th. The American squad won all of their Gold Cup matches in the run-up to the semis; the Qataris were unbeaten but were held to a draw by Panama. And, in general, the Americans are also the more experienced of the two nations - they have won the Gold Cup six times since the tournament's 1991 inception, and they have appeared in ten World Cups since 1930. By comparison, Qatar has been Asian Champions just once and have never appeared at the World Cup. On paper, the USA's squad were the most likely to win. Even without their usual A-team lineup or the fact that the team showed vulnerabilities against Canada and Haiti and found their victory over the Jamaicans a hard-won battle, the pundits still saw the USA as the victors. However, their tone was cautious; the Qataris performance at the Gold Cup up to that point had been reasonably impressive - a testament to the improvements in Qatari football in recent years.
Under the guidance of Felix Sanchez, the Qatari team have been playing together since their youth club days and are increasingly a cohesive unit that poses a real threat to their opponents. Unlike many teams, the squad doesn't have to rely on one or two top scorers; the team comprises numerous players who have an eye for goal and a raft of gifted play-makers. And, defensively, the team is usually pretty solid. In the last year alone, the Qataris have confidently topped their group in the Asian 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers and were unbeaten in their UEFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers appearances as guests. Indeed, the team have been unbeaten in their last eleven matches. At the Gold Cup tournament, the Maroons were the highest-scoring team in the run-up to the semis.
So, despite the USA's overall form, the match predictions forecast a spirited battle between the two opponents and one in which the Americans would need to be on their guard.
So, how did the action pan out?
The Final Match
Statistically, the USA had possession of the ball more frequently than the Qataris. However, in terms of goal action, the Maroons more than doubled the number of shots made by the Americans. Indeed, Qatar entered the first half of the game strongly and looked likely to open the scoring within the first seven minutes of the match. Hassan Al Haydos sent an intercepted ball across to Almoez Ali, who belted it home just a fraction too wide, denying the team an early lead. Qatar continued to keep the pressure on the American team in the first half, but, unfortunately, none of their goal attempts hit the mark.
The Americans responded with a speculative effort from Matthew Hoppe, but Qatar's goalkeeper Mashaal Barsham made an easy save. Qatar's Abdelaziz Hatem took another crack at goal shortly afterwards, but his efforts were thwarted by the USA's goalkeeper Matt Turner.
In the 19th minute of the match, Qatar's Boualem Khoukhi took a long shot from outside the box that rolled all the way through the American defence and looked dangerously on target. However, Turner deflected the ball at the posts to keep the score at 0-0.
Two minutes later, a curveball from Qatari Akram Afif was picked up by teammate Hatem. Hatem booted the ball with his left foot towards the posts but was denied a goal as Turner flicked the ball off course.
Just before half-time, the USA made a serious attempt on the Qatari goal with a header from Daryl Dike. However, the ball went straight into Barshams open arms.
After half-time, the Americans came out with renewed vigour. Less than six minutes into the second half of the game, they were taking aim at the Qatari goal again. Hoppe sent the ball from outside the box to Dike, positioned directly outside Qatar's posts. The number 11 powered the ball towards the net, but Barsham saved the shot.
A mistake by the Americans gave Qatar an opportunity in the 62nd minute, but Al Haydos’ penalty shot went over the crossbar.
In the end, the deadlock was broken by the Americans in the 86th minute. What turned out to be the match's only goal and the winning score was slipped into the goal by the USA's second-half substitute Gyasi Zardes. Nicholas Gioacchini, also a second-half sub, took a return ball from a fellow teammate just inside the box, turned the ball, drew Barsham to the Qatari goal's left-hand side, and made a short, killer pass to Zardes, who flicked the ball home. The Qataris rallied in the dying minutes to even the score, but they couldn't meaningfully get past the Americans defence to create a viable opportunity. The game ended 1-0 to the USA, but it was a battle to the end and no easy win for the continent's second-best team.
For the Qatari squad, the tournament is over. The team will head home and begin their training for the upcoming September window (seeing Qatar back in Europe for the continuing round of 2022 World Cup qualifiers) and for the December 2021 Arab Cup tournament. However, after their sterling performance at the Gold Cup, Qatar's football team has a wealth of additional experience, confidence, and credibility to face the upcoming competitions this year and their debut at the 2022 World Cup as tournament hosts.
The USA will go head-to-head against Mexico in the Gold Cup final on August 2nd. The Mexicans beat their semi-final opponents Canada 2-1 to reach the last match of the competition. Mexico and the USA have fought many battles over the years, but over a total of 71 head-to-heads, Mexico leads 36 victories to the USA’s 20 wins. At the Gold Cup, the Mexicans have won the cup on eleven occasions to the USA’s six and are the current titleholders. The final match will undoubtedly be fiercely contested!
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