Qatar’s super subs Haidos and Afif condemn China to group exit

January 22 – Qatar cemented a flawless nine-point start to the Asian Cup following a tentative 1-0 victory over Group A hopefuls China, where two equal teams were separated by a moment of brilliance from Akram Afif and Hassan Al Haidos to claim all three points at the Khalifa Stadium.

The hosts entered the game in a comfortable position having guaranteed the top spot in the group, which justified the selection of a heavily-rotated team as coach Tintin Marquez made nine changes from the match versus Tajikistan.

Sat in second place in the group with a slender one-point lead and still yet to score or concede a goal, China needed all three points to guarantee progression to the next stage of the competition.

Fuelled by the importance of a victory at the Khalifa Stadium, the Chinese opened with intent and aggression, creating a volume of early chances. The pick of the bunch was a powerful effort from Shihao Wei as his shot fired just wide of the post.

In contrast Qatar opened a much slower pace – with the pressure off they were comfortable to ease into the game with an unfamiliar laziness. Many of the players were playing in the tournament for the first time and needed time to adjust to the pace of their opposition, who were desperate to open the scoring.

Despite their slow opening, Qatar looked dangerous in the 13th minute as they forced the Chinese defence into action, issuing a warning sign that even at half pace they can be dangerous.

Qatar’s star man Akram Afif watched from the bench as his side struggled to create. His influence in build-up play was sorely missed by Qatar as the side looked lost when approaching goal.

The Qataris grew into the game and by half time, the contest was even, as both sides struggled to fashion high-quality attacking chances. China had the best chance of the half in the 35th minute, forcing a fantastic save from Qatar’s Saad Al Sheeb from point blank range. Yuning Zhang narrowly missing from another close range effort, sliding close to goal but failing to properly connect with the ball.

As the whistle blew for half time, the match allowed for an exciting half from the Chinese perspective, but for all the effort lacked the vital goal going into the second half.

Qatar made changes at half time, including a switch of goalkeeper despite Al Sheeb’s important saves, as he made way for Salah Zakaria.

Meanwhile, China made a single change. They modified their five-back formation into a more attacking shape, sacrificing defender Binbin Liu for the attack-minded Pengfei Xie.

With the score remaining 0-0 in the adjacent game that saw Tajikistan face Lebanon, it was clear that any goal in either match could completely change the complexion of Group A.

Returning to play with the same desire and aggression, China were fortunate to escape punishment after substitute Xie left a nasty challenge on Qatar’s Sultan Al Brake.

As both teams began to ease into the second half, Lebanon scored a vital goal in the opposing game, shifting China down to third in the group and reigniting China’s fire to win the game.

After Lebanon’s opener, China coach Aleksandar Jankovic was tasked with a difficult decision- substitute on attackers to chase a win or keep the match goalless in the hopes that Tajikistan can grab a goal back?

Severing any momentum for either team, Qatar’s substitute goalkeeper Zakaria suffered a nasty clash of heads following a corner in the 64th minute. Despite only playing 18 minutes, Zakaria was substituted as Qatar were forced to introduce their third goalkeeper of the match in fan-favourite Meshaal Barsham.

Qatar’s bench grimaced from the sidelines as the battered Zakaria made his way down the tunnel to be assessed.

As the crowd stirred with concern for their injured keeper, it erupted with cheer as Akram Afif subbed in on the hour mark to add to China’s fears.

He was the jewel of a star-studded triple substitution for the hosts, as captain Hassan Al Haidos and first-choice goalkeeper Barsham also joined the field.

The substitutions created a mismatch for the Chinese defenders and just minutes after entering the subs combined to score with Haidos unleashing a ferocious first-time volley from outside the box, assisted by a wonderful Afif cross.

Faced with no other options in response to surrendering the lead, Jankovic made a series of attacking changes to try and breathe life back into China’s Asian Cup hopes.

For a brief second, Jarkovic’s boldness had paid off as China netted in the 86th minute to draw the game level, but Chinese hearts were shattered as the goal was instantly ruled out as the ball was deemed to have gone out of play in the build up.

China’s frustration grew as Qatar used every time-wasting trick in the book, with their fate sealed as Tajikistan scored a late winner in the other match. This meant that China needed two goals in five minutes to progress- a tall order for a team without a goal across almost 400 minutes.

Unable to fashion anything meaningful going forward, China now look set to bail out of the Asian cup without scoring a single goal.

Contact the writer of this story, Harry Ewing, at moc.l1711665735labto1711665735ofdlr1711665735owedi1711665735sni@g1711665735niwe.1711665735yrrah1711665735

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