Unbeaten in two years, Qatar’s Invincibles lift World Cup hopes

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Doha (AFP) – When Al Sadd wrapped up a second straight Qatar title by stretching their unbeaten league run to 49 games, they were inevitably dubbed the ‘Invincibles’ after another team that reached the same number.

While the 12-team Qatar League is not as formidable as the 2003-4 English Premier league, unlike Arsenal, Al Sadd have turned their run into two league titles in a championship loaded with millionaire imports.

Their form has inspired hopes for the national team in the country that is hosting the World Cup.

Al Sadd’s squad contains the bulk of Qatar’s national side, as well as a former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla and ex-Premier League regular Andre Ayew.

Run by owners with seemingly bottomless pockets and training on manicured turf in Doha’s notorious heat, Al Sadd have swept aside rivals featuring the likes of Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld at Al Duhail and Colombian James Rodriguez at Al Rayyan.

Alderweireld’s side beat Al Sadd this week in the Amir’s Cup, the top domestic knockout. Al Rayyan, however, got rid of former France coach Laurent Blanc last month because they could not compete in the 12-team Qatar Stars League.

Al Sadd coach Javi Gracia, battle-hardened at Watford in England and Valencia in Spain before taking over when Xavi Hernandez returned to Barcelona in November, said his players had “achieved something very special”.

Cazorla, who spent six seasons at Arsenal, said Al Sadd’s streak dating back to March 2020 was simply “historic”.

Having equalled Arsenal’s unbeaten run, the Qataris see nothing stopping them getting past AC Milan’s 58-game streak in Italy in 1991-93 and Celtic’s 69 games in 2016-2017 in Scotland. Romania’s Steaua Bucharest went unbeaten for 104 league matches from 1985 to 1989.

“The Wolves”, as they are known, see their home success as a launchpad for the Asian Champions League starting in April, and the World Cup that Qatar will host in November-December.

‘Good for club and country’

Defender Tarek Salman said he felt he was part of a “golden generation” at Al Sadd along with national captain Hassan Al-Haydos and the foreign contingent.

“Most of Al Sadd’s players are internationals and this (success) stimulates enthusiasm, courage and the desire to be fully ready for the World Cup,” the 24-year-old told AFP.

Al Sadd players make up about three-quarters of the national side. Salman said this was “good for club and country” as they have developed a deep understanding over the years.

Qatar, winners of the Asian Cup in 2019, face growing expectations to at least get past the first round in this year’s World Cup, their debut on football’s biggest stage.

As for Al Sadd, Salman is looking even further ahead to a third straight Qatar title “even if, God forbid, there was a defeat,” as well as the Asian Champions League.

Al Sadd won the Asian title in 2011 but failed in the early stages in the last two years. Salman repeated apologies made by the players and vowed: “This year will be different.”

He acknowledged there was envy from other clubs, after criticism that Al Sadd’s success was undermining the Qatar championship.

But Salman highlighted how Al Hilal have dominated the Saudi Arabian league in recent years and won two of the past three Asian Champions League titles.

In Qatar, “all clubs have resources and all clubs have the power to buy and sell players.

“The difference between Al Sadd and others is that Al Sadd is smart and has good elements that know how to develop players and take them to a level that distinguishes them from other teams.

Santi Cazorla, number 19, one of Al Sadd’s star imports, celebrates a goal with team-mates KARIM JAAFAR AFP / File

“This superiority will be in our favor at the World Cup because most of the players in the team are from Al-Sadd.”

Muhammad Ghulam Al-Balushi, a product of the Al Sadd system who is now its sporting director, said the club’s victories showed how it is “a castle built for achievements and breaking records.”

“It is no secret that most of the national players at the World Cup will be from Al Sadd, and this confirms that Al Sadd prepares players to be ready,” he said, challenging other clubs to match Al Sadd’s work-rate.

“We lost the league two years ago, losing one or two matches, with the same team we have now. But we came back, corrected the mistakes and worked. Now we are getting results.”

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