The Gulf Cup of Nations, which kicks off in Yemen today, provides the ideal opportunity for teams to finalise their preparations for the AFC Asian Cup 2011. Once again this year we can expect the usual quota of drama and surprises, with reigning champions Oman and hosts Yemen out to upset for some of the bigger names in the competition. runs the rule over the teams participating in the 20th edition of the competition and gives you a taste of what to expect over the coming fortnight.

Defending champions
Oman’s goal will be to defend the title they won on their home turf last time out. Indeed, the team have a proud record in this tournament in recent times, having finished runners-up in the two previous editions, 2004 and 2007, when they lost out to hosts Qatar and UAE respectively.

The Omanis, coached by Frenchman Claude Le Roy, who led them to victory in 2009, can focus fully on the event after failing to qualify for next year’s Asian Cup. Their group rivals, by contrast, will be hoping to build on their performance here as part of their preparations.

Le Roy is quietly confident of his side’s ability to retain the title, saying, “We’re ready to defend our crown in Yemen even though we know the competition will be extremely tough and we must be at our best. I don’t know how things will go in our group as it contains Iraq, UAE and Bahrain – all very good teams. That said, we certainly have a very good chance of making it to the semi-finals.”    

The main contenders
Saudi Arabia are again among the leading candidates despite the decision of Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro to drop 11 members of his squad for “technical reasons”. The Saudis will now be relying heavily on outstanding midfielder Mohammed Al Shalhoub if they are progress in the tournament.

Speaking ahead of the tournament, Al Shalhoub himself had this to say: “The Gulf Cup is the region’s favourite tournament, and the Gulf people view the games as being just as important as any international matches. Winning the trophy is the aspiration of everyone playing in it.”

The Saudis have won the cup on three occasions, first in 1994 then again in 2002 and 2003. They also reached the final at Oman 2009 when, after a goalless 120 minutes against the hosts, they lost 6-5 on penalties.   

Saudi Arabia travel to Yemen, having prepared extensively for this tournament. Their build-up included five friendlies over the past two months, producing wins over both Uzbekistan and Gabon, draws with Uganda and Ghana, and just a solitary defeat at the hands of Bulgaria while at a special training camp in Turkey.

For their part, UAE will be gunning for a second title in three attempts after tasting success at the 18th edition in 2007. Slovenian coach Srecko Katanec can call on a number of veterans from that title-winning side, including star striker Ismail Matar.

UAE have also been busy fine-tuning their formation in pre-tournament friendlies, going down to Chile and Angola before trouncing India 5-0. The Whites, as the team are known, have plenty to prove in Yemen, after the disappointment of a first-round exit last time.

Katanec, for one, was in confident mood in recent days, saying, “Our primary aim is to qualify from the group, and after that to go as far as we can. The players have a burning desire to succeed at the Gulf Cup.”   

The dark horses
Iraq go in search of their fourth victory at the prestigious tournament after winning on home soil in 1979, in Oman in 1984 and in Saudi Arabia four years later – all under the tutelage of legendary coach Emmanuel ‘Ammo’ Baba. However, since returning to the competition in 2004 the team have found success harder to come by, going out in the first round on all three occasions with only one win from nine games.

Under German coach Wolfgang Sidka all that might be about to change though. His side have posted some encouraging results in their recent friendlies – wins against Qatar (2-1) and India (2-0) as well as a creditable draw with Kuwait (1-1) – and take that impetus with them to Yemen.

The hosts, meanwhile, will be hoping it is fifth time lucky, having failed to survive the group stages on each of their previous four appearances. The man charged with ending that ignominious run is Croatian Srecko Juricic, who has previously coached both UAE and Bahrain.

No one could accuse Yemen of not taking the build-up seriously, however, with the squad following a preparatory programme going back 15 months. Along the way they have enjoyed friendly wins over Liberia (2-0), Senegal (4-1) and a draw with Uganda (2-2) only last week.

The other teams
Kuwait, who have the benefit of a settled backroom staff under Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic, are another team with grounds for optimism, especially after victory last month at the West Asian Championship.

History is also on the Kuwaitis’ side, the team having lifted the Gulf Cup a record nine times. By way of preparation for Yemen 2010, they have been busy with friendlies, including two while based at their training camp in Abu Dhabi – a 9-1 rout of India followed by a creditable 1-1 draw with Iraq.

Bahrain, meanwhile, go in search of a maiden Gulf title under coach Salman Sharida. Having competed in the Gulf Cup on numerous occasions as a player, Sharida is aiming to help Bahrain go all the way after finishing runners-up no fewer than four times.

Finally, Qatar will be hoping to add a third title to those won in 1992 and 2004, although their results in recent friendlies have been less than encouraging. Under French coach Bruno Metsu they will be anxious for some morale-boosting results ahead of their hosting of the 2011 Asian Cup next January.

2010 Gulf Cup
Group A
Saudi Arabia
Group B