Teams prepare for Gulf Cup semi-finals
Iraq topped their preliminary group with three wins from three games, scoring five goals, while goalkeeper Noor Sabri has yet to concede. Coach Hakeem Shaker, who took over from Brazilian icon Zico last month, has introduced a sense of urgency and aggression in his team which is giving their attacking moves extra vigour and vitality.
With veteran captain Younes Mahmoud leading by example and youngsters Salam Shakir and Hammadi Ahmed lending flair and flexibility in attack, Iraq can look forward to claiming this title for the fourth time. Bahrain will be missing talismanic striker Jaycee John through injury, which restricted the 27-year-old Nigerian-born player to only a substitute's role in one of the three group matches.
John's absence was sorely felt as Bahrain, under new Argentine coach Gabriel Calderon, who took over from England's Peter Taylor in November, managed just two goals in three matches. One of those was a penalty converted by key midfielder Faouzi Aaish against Qatar.
Bahrain and Yemen are the only countries yet to win this title. However, Calderon is optimistic about his team's chances. "It's wide open from here on," said the 52-year-old former Argentina international. "All the teams in the semi-finals are capable of winning their matches. It will be a tough game no doubt, but we plan to play in our own style and hope to win."
Bahrain and defending champions Kuwait, who face the United Arab Emirates in the other semi-final, booked their tickets in the knockout stages following hard fought 1-0 victories over Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively in do-or-die matches. UAE were certainly the most fluent among the eight teams, scoring seven goals and conceding two in their three group matches.
With a majority of players coming from their 2012 Olympic team, UAE, under coach Madhi Ali, will start as clear favourites in their bid to win this title only for the second time since its inception in 1970. The Emirati hopefuls will again be pinning their hopes on prolific strikers Ali al-Hajri and Ahmed Khalil, who have scored two goals apiece.
The Kuwaitis, under Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic, began sluggishly and had to settle for a 2-0 victory over Yemen. Midfielder Bader al-Mutwa and barrel-chested striker Yousef Nasser al-Salman are in form and, with fleet-footed Fahad al-Enezi giving an extra edge to their attacks, Kuwait are quite capable of not only upsetting UAE but also extending their enviable run with an 11th title.