February 2 – After a big night of passion and a giant killing result that saw Jordan overcome South Korea to take their place in the Asian Cup final this weekend, it is the turn of hosts Qatar and Iran to battle for the right to play them.
The Qataris are – in name – pretty much the same team that played so disappointingly at the FIFA World Cup, but for the past month they looked to have recaptured the kind of form that drove them to the 2019 Asian Cup title in the UAE.
Qatar’s fans expect only one outcome, a home win, regardless of the fact they are facing an Iran that has improved as the tournament has progressed and in the last round dispatched a Japanese team loaded with players from Europe’s top leagues.
Qatar are on the verge of equalling Iran’s record Asian Cup run of 13 wins – if they beat the Iranians. If they retain their Asian Cup title they will break it.
In the run to the semi-finals, they were only pushed to the limit at the last eight stage where they needed a penalty shoot-out to beat Uzbekistan.
Goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham save three times. During play the Qataris at times struggled to create decisive, match winning moments despite the individual brilliance of Akram Afif.
Qatar will need Afif at his best to threaten Iran, and they desperately need striker Almoez Ali to find the form of 2019 that saw him break Asian Cup scoring records.
Hassan Al Haydos has long been Qatar’s match winner in tight situations though he rarely plays a full game. The three Qataris have scored eight goals between them this tournament.
If Qatar’s fans ooze confidence and expectation, coach Bartholome Marquez is more reserved.
“It’s our sixth game in a short period, so that will be physically demanding but we are still hopeful of a good performance,” said Marquez.
“Iran are a very strong team. We have not underestimated any team we have played in this competition so we will not start doing that against Iran.”
Qatar face a similarly expectant Iran who are desperate to win the title they have not held since their three title winning streak in 1968, 1972 and 1976 – they were hosts in 1968 and 1976.
Against Japan in the quarter final they showed how good a team they are and a rare ability amongst international teams to change tactics (rather than just make substitutions) to win a game.
In the first half the Japanese dominated Iran who were happy to soak up the pressure and the press, keeping the Japanese forwards at arms length from their goal and conceding very few chances.
In the second half Iran changed it up and took the fight to Iran, doing exactly what the Japanese had been doing to them in the first half. Iran coach Ardeshir Ghalehnoy said after their match that it was their best game yet but that he also felt they could play better.
That win was achieved without Iran’s talismanic striker Mehdi Taremi who will be available for the Qatar tie. Team Melli can also count on the likes of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and Saman Ghoddos for goals. It is an imposing line-up and Qatar’s defense has at times in the past proved it can be frail.
“I told the players to forget the Japan match, what is important now is to beat Qatar and reach the final. We know they are a good team, the defending champions and have spent a lot to improve the team,” said Ghalehnoy.
“We may make changes for the game but the level of the team is almost the same, so the quality of the starting XI will not be affected. Tactics that we make in every match, 70%-80% are related to the strength of our team and the balance related to the opponent…” he continued.
“We have to be more concentrated, show more quality and cover more distance. With all that, I hope that we can reach the final for the first time in a long time.”
One thing is for certain. The Al Thumama Stadium in Qatar, full to the brim, will be rocking in an Arab kind of way.
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