By Paul Nicholson and Samindra Kunti
January 17 – Ali Almoez delivered another powerful goal scoring performance inspiring Qatar to a resounding 2-0 win over a solidly organised but rarely threatening Saudi Arabia. Qatar top Group E unbeaten and now face Iraq in the last 16.
If the game had at times lacked the bite you might have expected for such a geo-politically charged derby match, the Qatari joy was evident at the end as they celebrated as though they had won the World Cup. It was a celebration in front of a group of about 100 Omani fans who had turned out to support them and who themselves had plenty to celebrate after having qualified for the next round with a 3-1 win over Turkmenistan via a goal scored in extra time.
The ensuing scuffle between Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Saiari and a group of Qatari players after the final whistle was surprisingly the only real confrontation between the players that showed any needle – Al-Saiari was gesturing and pushing the Qataris to get off the pitch. Asked about it in the press conference afterwards Saudi Arabian coach Juan Antonio Pizzi replied: “That doesn’t have (anything) to do with football and so I will not make a comment.”
The obvious inference was that the teams had been told by higher authorities to tone down the one-on-one confrontation you would expect in a needle match. In reality it was all pretty harmless stuff but the game might have been helped if that emotion had been allowed to play out a little more visibly on the pitch.
The result was a game that had just three fouls in the first 20 minutes and the not unwelcome absence of players rolling around claiming horrific injury. If it wasn’t a training game then at times in the early stages it felt like it might have been one, albeit a pretty competitive one and still enjoyable to watch. Qatar starlet Afif Akrim and Saudi’s Hatan Bahbri even embraced following the Qatari’s run down the right early on. Though their captains had not shaken hands before the kick off.
The Saudi fans in the stands were in no mood for courtesy and any Qatari incursion in the Saudi final third drew jeers from the Falcons’s supporters.
The first chance fell to Qatar’s Boualem Khoukhi, but Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais reacted well to the half volley. That chance triggered a spell of Saudi pressure and a penalty claim when in a tussle of full-backs Mohammed Alburayk went down inside the box. Saudo found space down the right behind Qatari left-back Abdelkarim Hassan and Saudi striker Fahad Almuwallad sneaked past the last defender to see his half volley cannon off he post.
Saudi Arabia dominance began to fade as the half wore on. In a dramatic finale to the first half Akrim’s pass to Ali Almoez nearly deflected beyond Alowais into the net. Qatar were then awarded a stonewall penalty after Ali Hadi Albulayhi cleaned out Ali Almoez inside the box. Alowais parried the spot kick with his legs from Qatar’s captain Hasan Haydos. Alowais and the Saudi bench celebrated.
Their joy didn’t last long when Almoez, on the stroke of half time, beat the offside trap after a huge mistake in the Saudi defence to slide the ball past Alowais, putting Qatar 1-0 up to near silence in the stadium.
After the break the Saudis pilled on the pressure, but without creating clear-cut chances. Almuwallad claimed another penalty, an appeal Korean referee Kim Dongjin ignored. He then controversially ruled out what seemed to be a legitimate second Qatari goal in the 59th minute. Alowais boxed the ball into his own net from Akrim’s corner kick, but in an expansive interpretation of the laws of the game Dongjin deemed Almoez had obstructed the Saudi goalkeeper.
There was more controversy when Qatar substituted their captain Hasan Al Haydos and the South Korean referee urged him off the field as Saudi Arabia were lining up for a set piece. Bahbri blasted the ensuing chance over in the rebound.
It was the omnipresent Almoez who decided the game in the 80th minute with his second of the match and his seventh in the tournament, converting a free header after more lax Saudi defending.
After the final whistle tensions almost boiled over, but the two coaches shook hands and Qatar celebrated a remarkable victory wildly. They now move on to the next round, Saudi with plenty to think about and Qatar with a victory that would have doubtless brought as much celebration at home as it did the Qatari delegation in the stadium.
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