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Morocco ominous, Qatar on march: 5 things learned from conclusion of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup group stages

RIYADH: The group stage of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup is over with the quarterfinals starting on Friday.

Saudi Arabia’s young, experimental team has been eliminated, and here are five things we learned from the performances of some of the other teams involved.

1. At half-time it is Africa 1, Asia 0

With the last eight made up of four Asian teams and four from Africa, it may look like continental honors were even in the group stage. That is not quite the case.

Six African teams started the competition and a maximum of five could have progressed (three were drawn in the same group). Four managed to do so, with Mauritania failing.

Asia had 10 representatives, and were guaranteed three places in the last eight, but could have had a maximum of seven. In the end, only four went through. In terms of direct confrontations, it was Africa 7 Asia 3.

Too much can be read into this. Saudi Arabia sent an under-23 team, and the weaker Asian teams had the better of their African counterparts in qualification. However, the likes of Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria often looked to be playing at a higher level and all three progressed without any fuss.

There is still time for Asia to turn the tables and show their African rivals what they are made of.

2. Egypt and Algeria cannot be separated

The record books will show Algeria 1 — Egypt 1 and in the end, only the fact that Algeria collected four yellow cards to Egypt’s three meant that the Pharaohs finished top due to fair play rules. That may be significant as they play Jordan next instead of Morocco.

But to have these two great north African rivals in the same group as Lebanon and Sudan is like putting Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain together with Club Brugge and RB Leipzig. There is talent in the other two teams, but they are just not good enough to challenge the powerhouses.

At least in the Champions League, one of the two meetings between the titans is a competitive and meaningful one, but by the time Algeria and Egypt met, they were both through to the last eight.

No doubt both would have wanted to finish first to avoid Morocco in the last eight but had there been a chance of the loser being eliminated then it would have been a titanic clash. As it is, there are still questions to be answered with both teams resting players. The real tests are about to come.

3. Qatar’s deadly duo strike again

Africa may be on top but the Asian champions, who beat Iraq 3-0 to make it nine points from three games, should be a match for anyone in the knockout stage on home soil and should be able to get past the UAE in a rerun of the 2019 Asian Cup semi-final.

Akram Afif was the standout player in Asia in 2019 as was confirmed by the Asian Football Confederation in that year’s awards. The winger has had his ups and downs since but looks to be returning to his best form for his country and his late cameo in the second half made a big difference.

Even more encouraging is that Almoez Ali also got on the scoresheet. Afif and Ali struck fear into the hearts of Asian defenses in 2019 and also linked up well in the Concacaf Gold Cup in the summer. If Qatar are going to go all the way on home soil, these two need to be at their best not just individually but together. The signs are encouraging.

4. Morocco look ominous

Much has been made of the fact that Morocco have scored nine goals in their three wins so far, ending in that 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia. What has been impressive is that the goals have been spread around the team, coming from all directions.

Yet, despite that offensive threat, it was striking that against Saudi Arabia in the final game, one that Morocco did not have to get anything from as they were already through, the team worked so hard to keep a clean sheet. It worked and has left the goals against column remaining blank.

Nine changes were made from the team that defeated Jordan three days earlier but there was still an organization in the team with the replacements fitting snugly into the system. They were fresh and worked just as hard as the first teamers on and off the ball.

Morocco have the strength in depth, the talent, the team ethic, and the organization to go all the way.

5. Iraq’s woe continues

The 3-0 loss to Qatar looked bad but it was goalless with 10 minutes left. That sums up Iraq’s year.

In the first half of 2021, Iraq were the form team in Asia. The 1-0 win over Hong Kong in June in the previous round of World Cup qualification, made it 19 games unbeaten (including a 2-2 draw with Bahrain in the 2019 Gulf Cup which ended with a penalty shootout defeat).

Then Srecko Katanec left after a salary dispute and the team has not won any of the last nine. Dick Advocaat has come and gone and now his former assistant Zeljko Petrovic looks to be struggling.

The Arab Cup was a chance for a reset, but it did not quite happen. A late equalizer against Oman could have been a springboard for a strong finish but then came the 0-0 draw with Bahrain, a game that Iraq had to win as Qatar came next.

The Asian champions were always going to be tough but had Yaser Kasim’s lovely first-half shot not hit the inside of the post and had Mohammed Qasim’s strike not hit the outside of the post with 11 minutes remaining when the scoreline was still goalless, then it could have been an Iraq win instead of a 3-0 loss.

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