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.
|Bolt a fan of Ronaldo, but compares his talent to Messi´s|
|Heynckes definitely leaving at end of season, claims Ze Roberto|
|Shaw issue a distraction from Manchester United´s failures, says Neville|
|Hamsik withdraws from Slovakia squad|
|Griezmann backs Pogba to prove doubters wrong for France|
|Sanchez ´expected something better´ from Manchester United move|
|Javi Martinez in the dark over Spain squad omission|
|Giggs feeling the tension ahead of Wales debut|
|Juventus confirm Alex Sandro thigh injury|
|Hart praises ´loyal guy´ Southgate amid World Cup axe fears|
|I miss Morata, says recalled Costa|
|I can improve even more at Manchester City - Bernardo Silva|
|Neymar will be fit for the World Cup, insists Ronaldo|
|Costa thinks Griezmann will stay at Atletico Madrid|
|Ferdinand worried by England´s World Cup striker options|
|Stam leaves Reading after wretched run|
|Neymar is great, we´ll see if he joins Real Madrid – Asensio|
|Maguire tips ´nightmare´ Vardy to replace injured Kane|
|Malcom ready to leave Bordeaux and chase Bayern ´dream´|
|Asensio insists Zidane was not unfair to him|
|Griezmann wants future resolved before World Cup|
|Nocerino wants Conte return after Italy´s World Cup ´disaster´|
|Iconic 2002 World Cup haircut was media distraction, reveals Ronaldo|
|Wright: Difficult for Liverpool sensation Salah to resist Real Madrid|
|Yaya Toure yet to report for international duty, confirm Ivory Coast|
|Morrison confirms plans to play for Jamaica|
|Germany should be proud to have Sane, says Tah|
|Bertrand out of England friendlies with back injury|
|Young backs Mourinho over Shaw treatment|
|BVBolt? Athletics great scores header while training in Dortmund kit|
|Fekir will look to leave Lyon the right way, says agent|
|Alisson loves Roma and we haven´t discussed Liverpool move, insists agent|
|McTominay: I always wanted to play for Scotland|
|Chiesa vows to honour Astori with Italy displays|
|England´s Pope ready for Heaton challenge amid World Cup race|
|Lautaro Martinez confirms impending Inter move|
|Morata wasn´t happy with Spain snub, admits Alonso|
|Raiola rages over Italy´s Balotelli snub|
|Raiola hopes Reina to Milan hastens Donnarumma exit|
|Former Sevilla coach Berizzo eyeing return after beating cancer|
|Cutrone did not expect whirlwind Milan season and Italy call-up|
|´Happy´ Kepa mulled over Real Madrid move|
|Lucas Vazquez keen on Real Madrid stay|
|Juventus clear Chiellini of serious injury|
|Newcastle charged as youth team allegedly breach advertising regulations|
|I did not betray Roma – Pjanic could not pass up Juventus opportunity|
|Title-chasing Sarri closes on Napoli renewal as he hopes to repay fans|
|Messi and Ronaldo reveal World Cup kits|
|Nara praises Inter project as Icardi talks continue|
|Marseille´s Rami wants to ´tickle´ PSG|
|Salah can push on to Messi´s level - Robertson|
|Iniesta better than last year – Lopetegui|
|Okon quits as Mariners head coach|
|Lopetegui: Morata must earn World Cup spot|
|Ronaldo has asked about China – Scolari|
|Ronaldo: I always show I´m the best|
|Manchester United not in Jorginho talks, says Napoli star´s agent|