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It is that time again. You know that when South East Asia finishes its regional competition then it is time for West Asia.

The Gulf Cup doesn’t quite possess the passion of its ASEAN equivalent. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain – and yes – UAE all have eyes on World Cup qualification.

Despite that, it is always an interesting and exciting time as any UAE fan who witnessed the 2007 triumph would readily say. 

The eight teams will do battle in Oman starting on January 4. The final takes place 13 days later.

Group One

Oman  

Two final appearances, two defeats. Oman fancy their chances this time around and as hosts, it’s hard to blame them. Many observers felt that the team were the best in 2007, only to come a cropper in the final in Abu Dhabi. Despite that, football bosses fired Milan Macala. It was a mistake and successors didn’t impress.

Claude Le Roy could be different – The Frenchman is a good coach and with him at the helm, Oman shouldn't be too far away. 

Last time: A place in the final and a 1-0 defeat. It still hurts in Muscat especially after Oman defeated UAE in the group stage.


Bahrain 

One of only three teams in the competition never to win the title and it is probably beyond a Bahrain side that is focused on qualification for a first World Cup.

In a tournament such as this however, a team that comes into form at the right time can take the title. Despite a lack of firepower, Bahrain are a tough team to beat and with the canny Milan Macala in charge, the tiny state has a chance.

Last time: A semi-final defeat against Oman.


Iraq  

The Asian champions have no distractions. They don’t have to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup and they are, of course, out of contention for the 2010 World Cup. The Gulf Cup would be a nice consolation for that exit and coach Jorvan Vieira has a good track record in international tournaments - as do stars such as Younis Mahmoud and Nashat Akram.

The team is focused, motivated and talented and should be a big threat – but with Iraq, you never quite know.

Last time: Lost out on a semi-final place due to scoring less goals than Bahrain. 


Kuwait  

The days when Kuwait dominated this competiton – as well as the Asian Cup – have long gone. The last victory came in 1998. In fact, only a late, and temporary, FIFA reprieve allowed the team to compete at all as the Kuwaiti FA had been banned from international competition.

After failing fairly dismally in World Cup qualification, Kuwait are desperate to make it to the last four but it would be a surprise to see the trophy heading to Kuwait City for a tenth time - though if Ahmad Ajab is on form, anything can happen.

Last time: A disappointing one point from three matches. 


Group Two


Saudi Arabia  

The big boys of the region with a pedigree that others can only dream of. One problem for the Sons of the Desert is that they have much to think about.

A home defeat in November at the hands of South Korea in qualification for the World Cup, means that a trip to North Korea in February is a must-not-lose match.  

Coach Nasser Al Johar will use this tournament to get his team in shape for that test but has been rocked already by the withdrawal of the mighty Mohammed Noor. There are doubts over Yasser Al-Qahtani’s fitness and Malek Maaz is out. But even without their stars, the Saudis will be a threat. If they are not, Al Johar could be on his way.  

Last time: A semi-final defeat at the hands of the hosts – an injury time winner from Ismail Matar.  


Qatar  

There are many who would be delighted to see a Qatar – Iraq reunion. Before that however, Qatar need to get out of the group. It won’t be easy. But Bruno Metsu knows all about this competition and he has the ability to lead his team to another final.

Qatar have lifted the trophy twice but both triumphs came on home soil. But a South American influence has made the team more potent in attack.

Last time: A dismal one point   


Yemen 

The outsiders. This is tournament number four but only one point to date so far. But moves are afoot in Yemen to turn the team into a regional power. In 2011, the tournament will move to Sana’a and 2009 is all about picking up points and confidence ahead of that.

Hungarian legend Laszlo Fazekas has been charged with the task in Oman and after a first point and some bad luck in 2007, a win would go down very well.  

Last time: One point from three games but it could have been more. 


UAE

The champions are about to find out if it is true what they say about defending a title being more difficult than winning it in the first place. It will be true in this case as UAE have to venture overseas to keep hold of a title won on home soil.

The senior team had a poor 2008 but there is hope as the Under-19s became champions of Asia. Four of those stars have been drafted into the squad for the Gulf cup – though the best of the lot, Ahmad Khalil is injured.  Ismail Matar is fit and he their best hope...

Last time: The title and a welcome trophy.     


John Duerden

Asia Editor


john.duerden@goal.com

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