Venue – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
Date: Sunday, November 20
After four and a half years, the World Cup is finally here. This November/December World Cup will be the first ever held at this time of year, and – as is traditional – the host nation will take center stage for the opening match. Qatar will face Ecuador on Sunday in the first tournament contest with more than its share of critics, but we will focus on the soccer action and look at what could happen at the Al Bayt Stadium.
This will be Qatar’s first-ever World Cup appearance, while Ecuador will be making their return for the first time in eight (and a half) years. The hope is that the host nation performs well, but they will be the underdogs in every game as their soccer pedigree at the international level barely exists are either senior or junior levels.
This might be their best chance for a result, with the always-talented Netherlands and AFCON champions Sengals waiting around the corner. As an aside, the fact that Senegal will be playing in this tournament without the talismanic and hyper-talented Sadio Mane (out through injury) is one of the sadder storylines heading into the event.
Qatar will be aiming not to become the second host nation knocked out in the group stages, a fate that befell South Africa in 2010. They have won their four warm-up matches – a needed boost to find form and a sense of belief – with teams like Honduras and Panama specially picked as they share some of the same footballing tendencies as Ecuador.
Expect Qatar to try to play this defensively. This is not a squad blessed with any unique attacking talents, so look for a formation where they play five defenders and look to soak up pressure before hitting Ecuador on the break. The key to their defense is Abdelkarim Hassan, a player with 130 caps to his name who the stage will not be too big for.
Interestingly, Byron Castillo – the man that almost saw Ecuador kicked out of this World Cup because of an eligibility question when he appeared in qualifying matches for the tournament – has been left out of their 26-man squad.
There are names that soccer fans will recognize – such as all-time leading goalscorer Enner Valencia who still leads the line – while the late-arriving trio of Carlos Gruzero, Moises Caicedo, and Jeremy Sarmiento will all expect to feature at some point in this opening match.
This one should be a defensive battle, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it is decided by a single goal in a low scoring 1-0 or 2–1 match. Qatar will have to lean on the crowd’s support to make up for the gulf in class between the sides, and I think that energy will carry them for at least a half. With Mane out of the Senegal squad, this group suddenly feels wide open behind the Netherlands, and because of that, I expect Ecuador to ramp up the pressure as the game wears on and eventually come out with the win.