Qatar have been building towards this moment ever since they were controversially named as hosts in 2010. By far the smallest nation to ever stage a World Cup, Qatar has been roundly criticized for its human rights abuses in the build-up to the tournament, but there has never been any possibility of FIFA reversing its decision.
Qatar have played more matches in preparation for this tournament than any other team. They won the Asian Cup in 2019 and were invited to participate in the Copa America of that year. They were also guests at Gold Cup 2021, reaching the semi-finals, and played friendlies against European teams throughout that continent’s World Cup qualification process.
Moreover, Qatar’s players have been in a pre-tournament training camp since September, when the country’s domestic league (in which every member of the squad plies his trade at club level) was paused. That could be an advantage. Most other participants will have been playing for their clubs as recently as last weekend.
Felix Sanchez has been in charge of the national team since 2017, although he has been involved in Qatari soccer for more than 16 years. The initial idea was for the World Cup hosts to appoint a big-name manager to take charge during the tournament, but Qatar have instead decided to stick with the former Barcelona youth coach.
Qatar play fluid, attractive soccer and will be easy on the eye in Group A. Their front two, the goalscorer Almoez Ali and the creator Akram Afif, complement each other well. But there is no doubt that Qatar are underdogs, even at home. Reaching the round of 16 would be a fantastic achievement for the World Cup debutants.
Because Qatar were placed into Pot One for the draw, Group A is one of the most open and unpredictable of the tournament. The Netherlands are widely expected to finish top, but Ecuador, Senegal and Qatar all have reasonably realistic ambitions of advancing to the knockout phase.
South America’s World Cup qualification tournament is a marathon, featuring home and away games against each of the other nine teams. Ecuador booked their spot in Qatar in impressive fashion, finishing fourth behind only the established continental powerhouses of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
Upon taking charge in 2020, Gustavo Alfaro ditched several veteran members of the national team and shifted the focus towards youth. Ecuador were the youngest side in South American qualification and they will also be among the youngest in Qatar.
La Tri’s approach is based on quick transitions down the flanks. They could line up in either a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 formation, but whichever shape they employ Ecuador will look to spring forward at speed when control of the ball changes hands.
The star man is Brighton’s Moises Caicedo, a real midfield all-rounder, but further quality is provided by the likes of Gonzalo Plata and Piero Hincapie.
If they are to stand a chance of progressing to the next round, Ecuador will probably need to emerge victorious in this match. A meeting with the Netherlands on November 25 will be tricky, so three points here would be a major boost for Alfaro’s charges.
Between 1974 and 2002, it was customary for the reigning champions to play the opening game of the World Cup. This was switched to the host nation in 2006, and in the four curtain-raising matches since then, the country staging the tournament has never lost. Needless to say, Qatar will be keen to keep that run going on Sunday.
The first goal will be crucial in this encounter. If Ecuador get it, they will be able to sit a little deeper and then counter-attack into the space left behind the opposition backline. If Qatar get it, the resolve and character of La Tri’s young team will be sternly tested.
On balance, we favor the South Americans in this one. For all that Qatar are capable of playing aesthetically pleasing soccer, they sometimes lack a ruthless edge in the final third. Ecuador are more incisive and could cut through a Qatari defense that has tended to struggle against quality attacks.
Goals could be few, with both teams fearful of defeat on the opening day. That would make qualification for the next phase difficult, albeit not impossible. Another wager worth considering is a goalless first half, but under 2.5 goals - while a likely outcome - is not priced particularly attractively. For more on how to bet on soccer, check out our guide.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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