By Paul Nicholson in Doha
February 7 – Qatar overcame Iran 3-2 at the Al Thumama stadium in Doha in another pulsating semi-final in an Asian Cup that has provided drama after drama.
A match that at times was lacking in finesse was more than made up for by commitment at both ends of the pitch.
Inevitably it was a goal and two assists from the mercurial Akram Afif that drove Qatar to what in the end looked like being an unlikely victory as they weathered wave after wave of Iranian attack. Jassem Gaber scored Qatar’s first goal, Afif the second and then Almoez Ali at last found some form at the right time to score the winner.
The opportunity to have made it to their first Asian Cup final since 1976 will not be lost on Iran. In the end they wasted chance after chance, hit the post twice, peppered the Qatar box with cross after cross, but just did not get the run of the ball in their favour.
Qatar’s win equals Iran’s record Asian Cup winning run of 13 games. Qatar will set a new record of 14 if they beat Jordan in the final at Lusail Stadium on Saturday.
Jordan will probably prefer to be playing Qatar than Iran, but the Qataris will start as favourites to retain their Asian Cup title. With much of the same team that played at their home-hosted World Cup in 2022, the joy of this win is very different to their disappointment at exiting at the Group stage in 2022. Qatar will now have a major final to play in their showcase Lusail Stadium.
Both coaches made two changes from the starting line-ups that saw them through their semi-finals. Iran’s Amir Ghalenoei brought back striker Mehdi Taremi, while Bartolomé Márquez left out the influential Hassan Al Haydos.
It took just three minutes for Iran to open the scoring. A long throw from Alireza Jahanbakhsh was headed on to Sardar Azmoun who found the back of the net with a spectacular overhead kick.
It was the worst start possible for the Qataris but it sparked an immediate reaction.
From the restart Qatar were straight back at them with Afif hitting the ball at Alrereza Berinvand. Moments later a short ball to Afif was delivered just too high for Qatar’s line of waiting forwards. Almoez Ali fell in the Iran box and rolled and writhed but convinced no one. The Qataris weren’t going down without a fight and Afif was leading it.
Iran were absorbing Qatar’s pressure and counterattacking at pace and in numbers.
They felt they should have had a free kick just outside the Qatari box in the 16th minute when Mehdi Taremi was felled – so did most of the non-Qatari supporting crowd. The referee was unmoved and in the end it can be looked at as a match-defining moment.
With Iran’s bench barely having stopped complaining Qatar equalised.
With Taremi down, Qatar attacked and the ball came to Afif in the Iranian box, who perfectly pulled the ball back to Jassem Gaber on the edge of the box. His shot took a deflection and looped agonisingly over Berinvand, 1-1.
On the half hour, with Azmoun, Taremi and Jahanbakhsh’s long throw were making like uncomfortable for Qatar, Afif almost put the Qataris ahead. A defensive mix-up in midfield saw Afif with a run at Iran’s remaining defender, but Berinvand blocked and Afif’s second attempt floated over the bar.
Afif was the fulcrum and the tip of the spear for Qatar. It was a piece of individual brilliance from him that put Qatar ahead on 43 minutes. Receiving the ball on the left he drove into the box and fired a shot across the Iran defense and past a diving Berinvand into the right hand side of the goal. 2-1 Qatar and the belief around the stadium that they could win became palpable.
With Iranian tempers starting to unravel with the frustration. Almahdi Ali and Jahanbakhsh came close to handbags with a number of Qataris ready to throw theirs into the dance circle as well – all for one and one for all. Afif stepped in – can he box as well? – in fact he negotiated a peace and they all broke up as friends.
Iran continued pressing but couldn’t breach Qatar’s stretched defence. On the stroke of half time a corner into Qatar’s box saw a scramble on the line keep the ball out. A VAR review for handball ruled no penalty. Qatar were please to see the break a goal up.
At half time Ghalenoei brought on Mohammed Mohebi for midfielder Omid Ebrahimi. The impact of the extra man up front impact was immediate. The first attack saw Saeid Ezatolhi hit a shot into a crowded box. This time the VAR review gave a handball against Ahmed Fathy. Jahanbakhsh hammered the penalty to Meshaal Barsham’s right – 2-2.
Again Qatar went straight back. The increasingly impressive Qatari youngster Yusuf Abdurisag had a shot in the box pushed wide. The resulting corner saw Iran head off the line. The melee that followed saw more handbags, perhaps we’re not all friends after all.
With 15 minutes gone in the second half Marquez brought on his captain Al Haydos.
With the player changes, disputes and players going down, the play had become fractured. Iran went back on the offensive and on 65 minutes Azmoun couldn’t quite get his head to a cross. Iran now had control and were firing crosses into the Qatar box.
On a rare Qatari incursion forward Almoez wasted his first real chance of the game, lamely heading down into nowhere. At the other end Barsham had to tip over a Shojae Khalilzadeh header.
Iran’s chances started to multiply while Qatar’s defence hung on by the skin of their teeth.
But it was Qatar who took the lead. In the 82nd minute and against the run of play the ball came to Almoez in the centre of the Iran box who had time to control the ball and hit it past Berinvand’s right hand. 3-2 Qatar.
Ghalenoei responded by throwing on another striker, Shahriyar Moghanloo.
With tension now at stadium boiling point, the clock ticked into 13 minutes of added time. Qatar were defending deep but with Afif there was always the threat on the counter.
Two minutes in Khalilzadeh was sent off for bringing the last man down. Iran still attacked in waves.
Jahanbakhsh pulled a shot wide, Azmoun headed over again. It was helter skelter attack and defence. In the 13th minute of added time Jahanbakhsh hit the post – a centimetre to the left and the ball would have cannoned into the net. Two minutes later Barsham’s finger tips pushed the ball wide. Even Berinvand had now joined the attack but even his legend was not going to be enough.
Qatar celebrated with passion, some more post match ‘handbags’ with Taremi, and multiple laps of the stadium. Bring on Jordan.
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