Asian Cup newcomers Tajikistan put on a brave front but hosts Qatar became the first team to reach the knockout stages of the continental showpiece at the Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday. And it was their star forward Akram Afif who once again delivered, netting a crucial strike in the 17th minute as Al Annabi kept their hopes of defending the title alive with a slender 1-0 win over Tajikistan.
It was far from a convincing victory for Al Annabi, but coach Marquez Lopez will be pleased to have progressed to the last 16 as Group A toppers, with a game to spare against China. Considering the tumultuous build-up for Qatar, who sacked Carlos Queiroz early last month and replaced the Portuguese veteran with Marquez, this will come as a relief for the hosts.
Qatar faced embarrassment as they suffered defeats in all three matches during their home World Cup in 2022, making it the poorest showing by any host in the tournament’s history. So, anything similar to that at the Asian crown Jewel would have been catastrophic. But the real test awaits them in the knockout stages, when they go up against Asian giants Japan, South Korea or Iran.
Qatar will hope Afif continues to fire like he has done so far in the last two matches. After scoring a brace against Lebanon last Friday, the Al Sadd forward slotted home when Almoez Ali won the ball and played a through pass to his teammate, whose burst of speed and accuracy was too much for goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov.
Afif hoped ‘the best is still yet to come’ as he spoke about his special partnership with strike partner Almoez Ali. “Almoez is one of my best friends and we understand each other very well,” Afif said of his partnership with Ali, who scored a record nine goals as Qatar won the title for the first time in 2019.
“We have been playing together for a long time so we understand what each other is going to do just with a look. We hope the best is still yet to come.”
Lopez made five changes to the Qatar starting XI, bringing in Tarek Salman and Bassam Al Rawi to replace Pedro Miguel and Almahdi Ali in defence. The Spaniard also overhauled his midfield as he relegated captain Hassan al-Haydos to bench, with Ismail Mohamed taking the armband while Moustafa Mashal and Jassem Gaber slotted in.
It all made up for a nervy start from the hosts as Tajikistan started aggressively, with Rustam Soirov forcing Qatar goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham into making an early save. Qatar, however, started making inroads with Ahmed Fathy’s cross in the 17th minute finding Tarek Salman but the centre-back failed to get his header on target.
But Afif calmed the nerves in the hosts’ camp 30 seconds later as he sped past defender Vahdat Hanonov and dinked the ball above Yatimov for his third goal of the tournament.
In the 33rd minute, Qatar believed they had earned a penalty after an altercation between Ali and Manuchehr Safarov.
However, following a VAR check, Japanese referee Kimura Hiroyuki Kimura opted to award Tajikistan a free-kick instead. Shortly before halftime, Qatar had another scoring opportunity when Yatimov spilled Afif’s shot. Despite the goalkeeper’s error, defender Zoir Dzhuraboev made a remarkable goal-line clearance to thwart Ali’s attempt on the rebound.
Qatar faced a moment of concern three minutes into the second half as Alisher Dzhalilov engaged in a foot race with Barsham. Although Dzhalilov reached the ball first, a heavy first touch cost him the chance with the goalmouth wide open. Just before the hour mark, Qatar missed two chances, with Ahmed al-Ganehi sending his shot over from just inside the box, and Ali being denied by Yatimov’s imposing frame.
Tajikistan’s time to equalise was running out fast before it took a further hit in the 81st minute as Amadoni Kamalov saw his yellow card upgraded to a red following a VAR review. The forward had kicked out at al-Ganehi, as the latter was brought down by Mohamed al-Bayati.
“I’m very pleased to qualify after two matches,” said Qatar coach Marquez. “It was a difficult game but we always knew it would be. We played against a tough, strong team, but we didn’t give them the chance to score. Every match is difficult and you are talking about the Asian Cup. The opposition started with high pressure but we were able to handle that. We had a problem with possession at the start but we controlled the match and achieved what we wanted to achieve.”
While Qatar will look for their 10th consecutive Asian Cup win when they face China on Monday, Tajikistan will have to defeat Lebanon on the same day if they are to stand a chance of advancing.
Coach Petar Segrt said his team’s final group game against Lebanon is “all or nothing”. “Everybody makes compliments to me, you can give compliments to Tajikistan, but at the end, the result is important,” he said.
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