The first match of the highly-controversial 2022 World Cup takes place at the Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday afternoon, as hosts Qatar lock horns with Ecuador in Group A.
Felix Sanchez Bas’s men are competing on the biggest international stage for the first time in their history, while the South American nation make their return to the World Cup finals after an eight-year absence.
Barely a week on from Sepp Blatter admitting that Qatar should not have been awarded the World Cup in the first place, the 2022 hosts hold the distinct honour of kicking off the latest instalment of the tournament, as domestic leagues take a break in order for the globe’s finest to congregate in the Middle East.
Controversy has reared its ugly head ever since Qatar were awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, but on the field, Sanchez Bas and his crop of soon-to-be history-makers have simply tried to give themselves the best possible chance of making it out of Group A.
Facing Africa Cup of Nations champions Senegal and 2010 World Cup finalists Netherlands is truly a baptism of fire for the world’s 50th-ranked nation, but they have taken part in four warm-up friendlies since October and have won all four of them.
Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and most recently Albania have fallen to Qatar’s superiority in recent weeks, with star striker Almoez Ali netting the only goal against the latter, and the Maroon are now aiming to become the first World Cup debutants to win their opening match since Senegal beat then-defending champions France in 2002.
On the other hand, Sanchez Bas’s side are aiming to avoid being just the second World Cup hosts to fail to make it out of the group – such a fate befell South Africa in 2010 – but victory here would also see Qatar make history as the only AFC nation to win their first-ever World Cup showdown.
Qatar were not the only nation to become embroiled in controversy before the first ball has been kicked at the World Cup, as Ecuador were reportedly facing the threat of expulsion from the tournament after fielding an ineligible player in qualifying.
Nothing came of that, though, and the South American nation now prepare to make their return to the game’s showpiece event after missing out on a place at Russia 2018, but making waves at the World Cup has not been their forte so far.
Ecuador have already appeared at three editions of the competition in 2002, 2006 and 2014, but only once have they progressed beyond the group stages, being eliminated in the last 16 16 years ago, which also represents the sole time that they have won their first match of the tournament.
Clean sheets have been the theme for Gustavo Alfaro’s men in their warm-up period too, as Ecuador have remarkably recorded six shutouts from six games since the start of June, but they have only found the back of the net twice themselves, with four of those six matches ending 0-0.
Ecuador and Iraq played out the Tricolor’s latest goalless stalemate last Saturday, and Qatar have already faced their South American counterparts three times on home soil, recording one win, one draw and one defeat versus the side who will be intent on spoiling the party atmosphere.
Qatar’s medical team have already been at work in the build-up to this match, as attacker Ahmed Alaaeldin came off in the 26th minute against Albania last week with an unspecified injury, but he was always expected to drop out here.
Indeed, Ali – the joint-leading scorer for his country with 42 goals – ought to be partnered in a two-man strikeforce by Akram Afif, and the duo will spearhead the charge for an otherwise defensive-minded Qatar side here.
A five-man backline ought to be marshalled by 130-cap international Abdelkarim Hassan, while captain Hassan Al-Haydos will eye his 170th cap behind the strikers as he hopes to take Ali Asad’s spot.
Similarly, Ecuador also suffered a first-half injury in their final warm-up game as Byron Castillo came off before the break, but the 24-year-old was in fact the player caught up in the ineligibility storm and has been left out of the Tricolor’s 26-man squad.
As a result, either Angelo Preciado or Robert Arboleda ought to fill the right-back slot for the South Americans, despite the latter only just coming back from an ankle fracture, while none of Moises Caicedo, Carlos Gruezo or Jeremy Sarmiento were involved against Iraq either, but the trio simply arrived after that game had taken place.
Sarmiento will need a once-over on a minor muscular problem, though, while Gruezo has been training normally after overcoming a thigh issue, and the line will be led by all-time leading scorer Enner Valencia.
Qatar possible starting lineup:
Al-Sheeb; Miguel, Al-Wari, Salman, Hassan, Ahmed; Hatem, Boudiaf; Al-Haydos; Ali, Afif
Ecuador possible starting lineup:
Dominguez; Preciado, Torres, Hincapie, Estupinan; Gruezo, Caicedo, Cifuentes; Plata, Valencia, Ibarra
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