More often than not, leaving it late brings on its own perils, but for the fearless it’s only the accompanying thrills that matter: the adrenalin gushing at stroke-inducing speeds, the heart beating itself into a frenzy at the prospect of accomplishing something special, but the mind somewhat a mess with self-doubt creeping in.
What if, after all the tension of the build-up, you are unable to achieve what you set out for? You’ve had it, plain and simple.
But yesterday, if there was tension in the air at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, it was felt only by the spectators; the players chose to ignore it. If someone had planted seeds of doubts in the young footballers’ minds, they were not allowed to germinate. Negative thoughts simply don’t influence confident 20 somethings when they are going for broke in a winner-takes-all game, especially when the grand prize is a ticket to the spiritual home of football, Brazil.
However, unfortunately and heartbreakingly for Qatar, it is Iraq who are going to the Olympics after a 2-1 comeback win over the hosts in the playoff for the third place at the AFC U23 Championship, thanks to a header by substitute Aymen Hussein four minutes into the second period of extra-time.
The 120 minutes of frenzied action had the spectators sweating, swearing and perhaps wanting to assault the players as both sides missed a plethora of chances, some ludicrously easy.
Ahmed Alaeddin gave Qatar the lead in the 27th minute but an equaliser four minutes from time by Muhanad Abdulraheem took the game into 30 additional minutes and the towering Hussein nodded home to qualify Iraq for the Olympics for the first time since 2004.
The win means Iraq, winners of this title two years ago in Oman, will join Japan and Korea Republic as the Asian Football Confederation’s representatives in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Iraq made two changes to the team that lost to Japan in the semi-finals, bringing Humam Tareq back into midfield in place of Mahdi Kamil while Safaa Jabbar returned from suspension in place of Amjed Hussein. Qatar, meanwhile were unchanged from the side that lost to Korea Republic.
The hosts shaded the opening quarter of the game as both sides attempted to establish a rhythm, with Alaa forcing Iraqi goalkeeper Fahad Talib into action in the 16th minute when he met Ahmad Moein’s corner, only for the ball to be palmed over the bar.
By the 27th minute, though, Qatar were in front as a ricochet in midfield fell kindly for Akram Afif, the midfielder picking up the ball in the centre circle and surging towards goal. As Talib attempted to close down the space, Afif rolled the ball to Alaa and he slotted his right-foot shot home.
Iraq’s Tareq put himself in position to level the scores just four minutes later when the Qatar defence failed to clear a corner, but his goalward shot was deflected to safety off the back of his team-mate Mustafa Nadhim.
As time ticked down in the half, the Qataris could have claimed a second; Musaab Khidir, Moez Ali and Ahmed Yasser all had sight of goal, only to miss out on claiming a second for Felix Sanchez’s team.
Qatar’s profligacy continued into the second half with Afif failing in a one-on-one situation with Talib 11 minutes after the restart, and the home side were almost made to pay.
Ali Faez’s dipping, curling free kick from 35 yards out was pushed away for a corner by Muhannad Naim while less than a minute later he palmed away Tareq’s close-range volley as the Iraqis pushed for the much-needed equaliser.
As a result the game opened up and the number of chances increased, with Alaa missing out on the opportunity to claim his second of the night when his attempt from the edge of the area was saved by Talib before Abdulraheem shot straight at the goalkeeper.
With four minutes remaining in normal time, the Qataris were ruing those misses as Abdulraheem rose highest to meet Khidir’s long punt forward to glance his header into the bottom corner and set the game up for extra-time.
Four minutes into the second period, Ali Hisny lifted the ball into the Qatari penalty area and Hussein rose highest to head back across goal and into the far corner.
Abdulkareem Hussain went close to leveling the scores again just minutes later, only to see his header come back off the crossbar, while Mohamed Muntari was foiled in a desperate goalmouth scramble but Iraq held on to break the hosts’ hearts and book their tickets for Brazil.
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