By Sahan Bidapa/Doha
There was never any doubt that man-to-man and on form Qatar were the overwhelming favourites going into the Asian Cup semi-final against the United Arab Emirates. But playing in front of raucous and unruly home fans can put even the most experienced players off the boil.
But the current Qatari team – comprising mainly of players in their early 20s – were unperturbed and determined on the job at hand yesterday as they thrashed the hosts UAE 4-0. It has also helped the players that their coach Felix Sanchez played down all political talk, instead focusing on strategies and keeping his players sharp, physically and mentally.
“It wasn’t an easy situation,” admitted Sanchez after the semi-final win. “The players were aware there was going to be a lot of pressure but they managed their emotions quite well — I’m very proud of them.”
The 43-year-old Sanchez, who took over as Qatar’s head coach 18 months ago, has been involved with the current crop of players since 2006. And much to the Spaniard’s credit he has marshalled his boys splendidly as they have become the first Qatar team to enter the Asian Cup final. Previously, The Al Annabi only managed to reach the quarter-final stages, in 2000 and 2011.
But this team under Sanchez is out to make history and their performance so far suggests that they will be upbeat about their chances against Japan in the final on Friday. Sanchez has repeatedly said his team are keen to prove they are worthy of a World Cup 2022 debut and they have shown it on the field as they beat two of Asia’s best teams South Korea and Saudi Arabia en route to the final.
Yesterday, Sanchez stuck to his 4-2-3-1 combination to UAE’s 4-3-3. Tournament top-scorer Almoez Ali operated as lone forward and the Qatari forward troubled the lacklustre UAE defence until he was replaced with eight minutes to full time and the match clearly out of the hosts’ grasp.
While the UAE players watched by the 38,646 home fans at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium were under pressure, even struggling to make the simpler of first touches, the Qatar players were put in a calm and composed show.
Like all good modern football teams, Qatar were lightning quick on the counterattack, which brought them their first goal of the night. In the 22nd minute, Boualem Khoukhi raced down the right as he struck a not-so-powerful shot only to see the UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa fluff a straightforward save as the ball slipped into net after his tame effort.
And after Almoez Ali scored a record-equalling eighth goal of the tournament for a 2-0 half-time lead, the victory was never in doubt. While UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni put all his men forward in search of two goals in the second half, it only played into the hands of impressive Qatar.
Captain Hassan al-Haydos and substitute Hamid Ismail put themselves on the score sheet in what once again highlighted their title credentials.
While Qatar have hammered 16 goals in six matches, they are still to concede one so far. Last night’s clean sheet against UAE ensured they became the first team in the history at the Asian Cup to not concede a goal in opening six games.
Barring one chance in the second half, UAE rarely troubled Qatar’s goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb as Qatar’s back four put in a solid show. This was despite Sanchez missing Bassam al-Rawi and midfielder Abdulaziz Hatim, who were suspended after picking up two yellow cards.
But Assim Madibo and fullback Abdelkarim Hassan who were slotted into the side after serving their own one-match bans more than made up for it.
Before yesterday’s match, Qatar faced just seven shots on target across their five games and while UAE had three, they were far from any serious threat to the Qatar defence.
Qatar left-back Pedro Correia took great satisfaction from silencing the haters. “We like to play games like this,” he said. “Everybody knows about the problems but we don’t care — we just play football. Let the people talk, winning 4-0 is more important.”
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