By Samindra Kunti in Doha
January 28 – Debutants and history-makers Tajikistan stunned the United Arab Emirates 5-3 on penalties following an absorbing 1-1 draw to advance to the last eight of the Asian Cup.
The Tajiks and their eccentric manager Petar Segrt wrote the next chapter of their Asian Cup fairytale with a spirited and well-deserved victory against a lethargic United Arab Emirates,
Khalifa Al Hammadi’s injury-time goal cancelling out Vahdat Hanonov’s 5th-minute strike before the Tajiks prevailed from the penalty spot to book their place in the quarter-finals.
They have become the second team to post such a deep run on debut after Australia in 2007.
In big team news before kickoff, Paulo Bento once again omitted Ali Mabkhout not just from the starting eleven, but from the squad.
His absence had previously been justified on tactical and technical grounds, but with the 19-year-old Sultan Adil sidelined through injury Mabkhout’s return perhaps would have made sense. Instead, striker Caio Canedo, Fabio de Lima, Yahia Nader and Bader Abaelaziz were restored to the line-up.
In the other dugout, Segrt rang two changes. Sharom Samiev replaced Rustam Soirov at the point of attack and midfielder Amadoni Kamolov was out because of suspension.
In the first 20 minutes, both sides had sight of a goal with Yahya Al-Ghassani curling a free kick inches wide for the UAE, and Shervoni Mabatshoev, released with a fine through ball, stabbing the ball wide.
In a major blow, Bento was forced to take a limping Abdullah Ramadan off, presumably for pulling a hamstring. The Al Jazira midfielder provides the guile with his precise passing for Bento’s side.
Despite Segrt’s team defending in two banks of four, there was always a sense of danger and the Tajiks’ next attack on the half-hour mark was lethal.
Following a weighted cross from the right, central defender Hanonov beat Khalid Al Hashemi and Canedo to the ball to head down past goalkeeper Kahlid Essa, who at full stretch could not prevent from the ball creeping up and into the net, 1-0.
It was almost a counterintuitive situation for Tajikistan to be in – an early goal, a lead and the quarter-finals looming large. The Whites were shell-shocked and did not seem to understand what had hit them.
After regrouping they showed more composure on the ball but Tajikistan blunted the Emirati attack, restricting the United Arab Emirates to a well-timed half-volley from Sultan Zayed and an attempt from Al-Ghassani, both collected easily by the Tajik goalkeeper.
On the stroke of half-time, they claimed a penalty when the ball struck the hand of Parvizdzhon Umarbaev in the box. The reality was however simple – the Gulf nation were not doing enough in the final third and didn’t deserve an equaliser.
Bento needed a huge half-time team talk as his side had 45 minutes to chase the game and save their tournament.
The UAE applied more urgency in the opening exchanges of the second half, but, instead, Ehson Panjshanbe warned the Emirati with a dangerous curling shot that they were perilously close to elimination.
What Tajikistan lacked in technique and skills, they made up for with energy and heart and they seemed determined to pick their opponents off on the counter.
Following a stray pass, Alisher Dzhalilov escaped the attention of the UAE defence, but failed to double Tajikistan’s lead. The counters kept coming and on the touchline, Bento cut a frustrated figure. Al-Ghassani was his best player on the pitch, but he didn’t get enough support from those around him.
The momentum with the debutants, Dzhalilov somehow squandered what should have been his team’s second with the goal at his mercy in the 71st minute. He failed to connect properly with the ball at the far post and a straightforward tap-in turned into an embarrassing miscue. As Tajikistan’s opportunities mounted, Nuriddin Khamrokulov’s header sailed wide from a set piece.
Well into the final quarter of the match, time was running out for Bento’s team, who remained lethargic. They created little meaningful action in front of the goalmouth until Al Ghassani struck the post.
That was the prelude to a helter-skelter finish the UAE drawing level with a 94th-minute header from Al Hammadi. Cue delirium on the Emirati bench with Bento kicking a bottle of water, an equal measure of his delight and frustration.
The UAE fans behind the Tajik goal were buzzing for the first time. Segrt demanded his players to keep their cool, but that was no easy task in a frantic finale. Tajikistan almost snatched a late winner when Khamrokulov got direction on his header the second time around only to be denied by Eisa.
Before the match, Segrt wondered how much energy his players had left in the tank and toward the end of regular time they seemed out on their feet, but the eleven Tajiks, leaving the deflation of the late equaliser somewhat behind them, held their own in extra time as both sides, shattered, failed to seize the initiative.
Ultimately, penalties were to decide a winner. The first shoutout of the finals did not disappoint with goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov, the reigning Tajik player of the year, turning the hero of a nation by saving Caio’s penalty which would prove enough as his team converted all five penalties.
Segrt and his players celebrated wildly and this time the manager did not break his glasses.
The emirati return home with their tails between their legs after a typically insipid display and early exit. The Tajiks party on and how.
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