Sports, Football

Qatar face Lebanon as Asian Cup kicks off today

Published : 12 Jan 2024 05:35 PM | Updated : 12 Jan 2024 05:35 PM

A little over a year after hosting their first-ever World Cup, Qatar returns to the spotlight as hosts of the delayed AFC Asian Cup and will get the eagerly-awaited tournament underway at the iconic Lusail Stadium on Friday when they take on Lebanon. The stadium is already in the history books as it hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France on December. 

Following China's withdrawal as host due to post-pandemic legal restrictions, Qatar was chosen as the destination and will now host the tournament for the third time in their history. Qatar enters the tournament as the defending champions, having secured their first title in the 2019 event with an unexpected win over four-time winners Japan in Abu Dhabi. However, since then, The Maroons have undergone major changes.

After ending bottom of their group in the World Cup and failing to earn a single point from their three group-stage matches in the competition, the Qatar Football Association (QFA) opted to part ways with Spanish head coach Felix Sanchez.

Carlos Queiroz was appointed as Sanchez's successor and was expected to lead the side to the 2026 World Cup, yet despite winning their first two World Cup qualification matches, the QFA decided to cut ties with the Portuguese manager last month.

Marquez Lopez will now oversee the side for the AFC Asian Cup and has had a mixed start to life in his new role, which began with a solid 3-0 win over Cambodia on New Year's Eve before suffering a 2-1 defeat to Jordan last week.  

"It is a challenge, and not an easy challenge," said the 62-year-old.

"But what distinguishes this journey is that I have worked in Qatar for a long time and I know the players and how they act on the pitch."

Qatar’s skipper Hassan Al-Haydos said Thursday that Qatar would have to deal with heightened expectations at the Asian Cup, starting with their Group A opener. 

"I think the 2019 generation has raised our level of expectation -- we are always required to win in any competition we play in," said the attacker, who has been capped more than 170 times.

"It raises the bar and gives us a challenge, but challenge is the real flavour of football.

"I hope the new generation of players can deal with this pressure."

Meanwhile, few can forget the heartbreak that Lebanon experienced in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and they will be hoping to make amends for that disappointment when they take to the field this year.

Four years ago, The Cedars needed to beat North Korea by four goals in their final group-stage match to progress to the last 16 of the competition but found themselves a goal down inside the first 10 minutes due to a mistake by goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil.

Currently 107th in the world according to FIFA World Rankings, The Cedars are the lowest-ranked team in Group A of the competition. However, they will be targeting a win against Tajikistan, who are ranked just one spot above them and cannot be ruled out against a Chinese side that have been firing hot and cold in recent times.