By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - An in-form Qatar will be hoping to use the 10th Asian Cup in nearby United Arab Emirates as a platform for a successful maiden World Cup campaign as the hosts of soccer's biggest event in 2022.
The Jan. 5-Feb. 1 tournament will be Qatar's last major competition ahead of the next World Cup and the tiny, wealthy Arab state will look to improve on their Asian Cup quarter-final appearances of 2000 and 2011.
Comprised largely of players from 2018 AFC Champions League semi-finalists -- Al Sadd and Al Duhail -- the Maroons have been pooled alongside Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in Group E, with only North Korea below them in the FIFA rankings.
However, Felix Sanchez's men will be confident of advancing deep into the tournament, having been boosted by two impressive displays in international friendlies last month.
Qatar pulled off one of the most impressive results in their history when they won 1-0 in Switzerland and five days later, they fought back to earn a 2-2 draw against 2016 UEFA Euro quarter-finalists Iceland.
"The Asian Cup is a very important tournament, and we want to give it our best," Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb told sports weekly Doha Stadium Plus.
"Our preparations have been very good. We played two high-intensity matches in Europe and did well and hopefully, we can continue in the same way at the Asian Cup."
Qatar's defence will be boosted by the presence of Abdelkarim Hassan, who was named 2018 AFC Asian Player of the Year after the left back played a pivotal role in Al Sadd's run to the Asian Champions League semi-finals this season.
However, Hassan's club team mate Akram Afif is likely to be the most recognisable face in the squad after his breakthrough year.
Despite being just 22, Afif has already played in Belgium and Spain, and scored the winning goal against Switzerland, breaking clear and rounding home keeper Yvon Mvogo to finish with aplomb.
The Qatari midfielder, who primarily operates behind the attack, will look to cement his status as one of Asia's top talents during his first Asian Cup.
Qatar have also won two more recent warmup matches against Jordan and Kyrgyzstan, lost narrowly to Algeria and complete their preparations against a Carlos Queiroz-coached Iran, the top side in the continent, in Doha on Monday.
"The four friendly matches will be a good opportunity to prepare the players," Sanchez told reporters. "I have several players to choose from the preparatory camp and I will wait till the friendly matches to decide on the final squad.
"Every team goes into any competition eyeing the title. The Qatari team's goal is no different.
"I know Qatari fans have big hopes from the current batch of players and I hope we can deliver. Having said that we are in a tough group, and all the teams deserve the respect."
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by John O'Brien)