Doha: Upsets were conspicuous by their absence on day two of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021™ as a few of the region’s heavyweights reinforced their title credentials. North African nations enjoyed a particularly fruitful time of it, with Egypt, Algeria and Morocco all emerging with maximum points and the latter pair doing so with a degree of ease.
And while Jordan beating Saudi Arabia – given respective spots of 91st and 48th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – might ordinarily be seen as a shock, the nature and average age of their respective squads meant that this match too adhered to the expected script.
We identified Baghdad Bounedjah as a likely star ahead of Algeria’s FIFA Arab Cup opener, and the striker more than lived up to his billing. In truth, there should have been no surprise at him claiming a fine brace to become the tournament’s joint-top scorer at this stage. Besides his obvious goal-grabbing ability, Bounedjah pointed out afterwards that he is “used to scoring” at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium – with some justification. After all, the striker famously bagged an Emir Cup-winning brace for his club, Al Sadd, when this impressive arena was inaugurated last December.
Egypt were heavy favourites against Lebanon but found the going tough for the opening 70 minutes as their opponents held out resolutely. Robert and Felix Melki – the only brothers in the competition – were crucial to the underdogs’ defensive effort, and didn’t deserve to end up on the losing side. But that was to be their fate thanks to one costly moment, when the former’s timing was out for once – “if only I’d been a few moments faster” he later lamented – with a penalty-conceding tackle. Mohamed Afsha took full advantage, capping a memorable year – which has included vital strikes for Al Ahly and Egypt in the CAF Champions League and FIFA World Cup™ qualifying respectively – by scoring from the spot for the Pharaohs’ first-ever goal at the FIFA Arab Cup.
Morocco, like the Egyptians before them, initially struggled to break down a determined, well-organised defence and, with half an hour played, had created next to nothing. Frustrated by the lack of progress being made by those in front of him, defender Mohammed Nahiri took matters into his own hands. When he picked the ball up 40 yards from goal, wide on the left and began cutting inside on his weaker foot, the Palestine players could have been forgiven for backing off, inviting the full-back to shoot. But that proved to be a fateful error as Nahiri sent a right-foot rocket flashing through the air and in off the underside of the crossbar, paving the way for a comfortable Moroccan win.
Experience wins out for Jordan
The energy and fearlessness of young players is often heralded in football, and Saudi Arabia certainly have some talented prospects within their ranks. But the enduring value of experience was laid out once again at Education City as Jordan’s superior nous and knowhow came up trumps. The difference between the two teams in this respect was underlined by their captains, with Jordan lead by the seasoned Baha Suleiman (34) and their opponents by 22-year-old Saud Abdulhamid. The Saudis still competed well, but the youthful squad they have brought to Qatar (their starting line-up had an average age of just 21 years and nine months) still clearly – and understandably – have a thing or two to learn.