Tajikistan and Šegrt want more from their Asian cup fairy tale debut

January 27 – On the eve of the biggest match in Tajikistan’s history, manager Petar Šegrt has said his debutant side won’t assume the role of underdogs in their round-of-sixteen match against the United Arab Emirates. 

The Tajiks finished second in Group A behind hosts Qatar following a dramatic, rearguard victory against ten-man Lebanon to clinch a ticket for the knockout stages, prompting wild celebrations by Šegrt and his players in Doha, and fans back home in the capital Dushanbe.

The United Arab Emirates await in the last sixteen, but Šegrt won’t be fazed by the occasion and the reputation of their opponents, claiming that it will be a 50-50 match.

“We are not the underdogs anymore,” said Šegrt.

“We don’t have to calculate, this game is everything or nothing – maybe we celebrated like we won the Asian Cup, but the group stage was a sensational success, it was a great success but we want more. Everyone wants more. I can’t say to the players – we are now happy, we can go home. We will look at how much petrol we have in the tank, and how much energy we have left.”

He added: “We are all in euphoria, the players are flying, and everyone wants to play this. We are six weeks without our families, without our normal lives, I do not have to motivate them.”

A nomad coach with stints in Afghanistan and the Maldives, Šegrt has built himself a reputation as a larger-than-life character at the Asian Cup, shaking hands with all the journalists and volunteers at press conferences which he delivers in a style that lifts the mood.

Šegrt downplayed his role, refusing to call it a one-man show and hailing his players for their achievements.

“Nobody can tell me that they are not the heroes of Tajikistan,” explained Šegrt.

“They are the heroes because they put some very good opponents out. The United Arab Emirates is a strong team. It will be a 50-50 game. Both teams can win this game. We must bring fresh blood, the red card of Amadoni Kamalov is a big problem. He has to learn from that, we must find a new solution.”

In March, Tajikistan held the United Arab Emirates to a goalless draw and Sunday’s meeting will be the third encounter between both sides.

Paulo Bento is now in charge of the Gulf nation, but the Portuguese manager admitted that his team won’t be the outright favourites to reach the last eight, warning that they can’t be complacent. He confirmed that Sultan Adil, the 19-year-old striker who scored against both Palestine and Hong Kong, has been ruled out injured, which could signal the return of Ali Mabkhout.

“It’s the first time they have come and they reached the knockout stage but their motivation should not be higher than ours. If we think because they are in the competition for the first time, it is a team with fewer possibilities than us, then we are making a big mistake,” said Bento.

Four years ago, on home soil, the UAE played debutants Kyrgyz Republic in the round of 16 and needed an extra-time goal from Ahmed Khalil to progress.

That result will remind Bento and his charges to be on their guard against Tajikistan, even more so after criticism back home over their underwhelming performances in the group stages.

“I don’t consider our team favourites for the game. We need to do many things well in order to go through to the next phase. At the same time, correct certain things that we didn’t do so well in the previous game. There is no space to make too many mistakes.”

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