ABU DHABI (AFP) - Defending champions Qatar face a tough challenge to retain their crown when the eight-team Gulf Cup of Nations kicks off on Wednesday.
Qatar, last month crowned Asian champions on home soil, are grouped in Pool A with beaten Asian Games finalists Iraq, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
Pool B sees hosts the United Arab Emirates grouped with Kuwait, Oman and minnows Yemen. The winner of the first pool plays the runner-up of the second and vice versa for a spot in the final of the 18th Gulf Cup.
Saudi Arabia, three-time winners of the tournament who have qualified for the World Cup on four occasions, most recently in Germany last year, elected not to send a team to Doha last month and have fixed victory here as a realistic goal.
Saudi manager Fahad al-Musaibih rated his team as "one of the best and the favourites with all due respect to all our opponents."
Musaibih played down fears of the "group of death", from which only two teams will emerge from a round-robin format into the semi-final.
"I don´t believe that our group is stronger than the other group. If you want to win the title, you have to beat the other contenders irrespective of who they are. We are ready to compete for the title," he said, quoted by the Dubai-based Gulf News daily.
"I also believe that most of the teams are of equal standards and that the competition will be exciting and strong because all of them have prepared well to win the title."
Kuwait coach Saleh Zakariyah said his team had benefited from a training camp in Egypt.
"We have practiced our game plans in the friendlies we played there. We are ready for our first match against Yemen.
"We are determined to win the title for a record tenth time and I do believe that we are capable of achieving that goal," said Zakariyah, who led Kuwait to the 1986 Gulf Cup.
Hosts the UAE warmed up for the competition with an encouraging 2-1 win over German club Stuttgart, but Bruno Metsu´s team have been hard hit by their growing injury count - currently standing at seven.
Team doctor Jalal al-Ghali told Gulf News that all steps were being taken to ensure the injured players were fit and ready for their opening match against Oman on Wednesday.
"We are doing our best and at the moment, I believe that all the players will be ready for the opening match," Ghali said.
French coach Metsu has kept training sessions here to a minimum in a bid to keep his remaining players fresh.
"I don´t want to expose the players to fatigue and exhaustion before their first important match against Oman," said Metsu, who saw his team go down 2-0 to Iran in a final warm-up game on Friday.
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