By Samindra Kunti in Al Khor
January 29 – With an assist and a goal, Akram Afif propelled Qatar to the last eight of the Asian Cup with a 2-1 victory over the brave-hearted Palestinians.
The number eleven starred in a victory that did not come easy for the host nation and broke the hearts of Palestine, who can reflect on a historic campaign amid the backdrop of war in Gaza.
The Palestinians secured their first-ever victory in the finals, progressed to the knockout stages, and, above all, became everyone’s favourite team in the competition.
Qatar’s manager Bartolomé Marquez restored his first-choice players, including captain Hassan Al Haydos and attacking duo Afif and Almoez Ali, to the starting line-up after fielding a reserve side in a 1-0 win against China.
In all, the Qatar manager made nine changes. His Palestinian counterpart Makram Daboub opted for Camilo Saldaña instead of Mohammed Khalil at right back.
The hosts dominated possession with Afif, often dropping deep, pulling the strings. He picked out Bassam Al Rawi at the far post with a deep cross, but the defender miscued his header completely. If the Maroons had the ball with a 71-29 split of ball possession, Palestine had the opportunities. Inside the first 30 minutes, Amid Mahajna’s dipping effort and Mahmoud Abu Warda’s shot with the outside of his foot were saved by Qatari number one Mershaal Barsham. Belgian-based Oday Dabbagh enjoyed perhaps the best opportunity in the 24th minute, but his attempt held the middle between a proper half-volley and a lob, a moment of indecision costing him a goal.
But Dabbagh and Palestine came good when they pinched the ball high up in the 37th minute before the Charleroi striker went on a solo run to slip the ball past the goalkeeper, 1-0. The goal had been coming and there was no arguing that Palestine did not deserve it. Every time the Palestinians attacked the Qatari defence trembled, exposing most of all the veteran defender Boualem Khoukhi.
For the first time in the tournament, Qatar were behind and they offered no immediate response against a well-organised Daboub side, who relied on a 4-5-1 formation out of possession with second striker Zion Qunbar dropping into the midfield.
In the seventh minute of injury time, Qatar however drew level following a clever Afif corner. He pulled the ball back, Qunbar failed to get a block in and Al Haydos equalised with a low shot from near the penalty spot. It was in equal measure great Qatari execution and a Palestinian lapse of concentration.
The Palestinians had given Qatar plenty to think about and Marquez took both Khouki and Al Rawi off, switching to a more attacking formation, which yielded immediate results after the restart as Qatar got a 47th minute penalty following a through ball by Afif. It was the tackle of the unfortunate Mohammed Saleh, who has family back in Gaza, that was penalised and Afif stepped up to convert the spot kick, 2-1.
Afif’s fourth goal of the tournament reversed Qatar’s fortunes and left the onus on Palestine to find an equaliser to rescue their tournament, but the Lions of Canaan found it hard to make many strides forward and it was only in the last 15 minutes that the Palestinians began taking greater risks. Industrious on the left, substitute Mohammed Rashid swung in a dangerous cross and from a repeat pass Qunbar headed straight into the hands of Barsham. At the other end, Afif remained hungry for more goals, but his free kick sailed wide.
At the final whistle, the deflated Palestinians went to greet their fans. They had shown resilience in the face of so much adversity. Palestine’s Asian Cup transcended the game, offering a glimmer of hope for Gazans and the diaspora around the world.
They have been adopted as everyone’s second team in Qatar, amid widespread Arab support in the stands and they returned the love by responding with a crisp performance on the pitch, defeating Hong Kong 3-0 to claim a first-ever victory and a ticket to the last 16 at the Asian Cup. In the second round, Palestine ran the Qataris close and bowed out in style.
Ultimately, the Maroons had slightly too much quality. The hosts march on and will play the winner of Uzbekistan-Thailand in the last eight on Saturday.
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