Qatar oust mighty Iran to set date with destiny in Asian Cup
Al Thumama Stadium, Qatar – Qatar’s dream of winning a second successive Asian title, and doing it in front of their home crowd, has reached its final destination after the hosts fought their way past Asian giants Iran in the second semifinal of the AFC Asian Cup 2023.
Qatar came back from conceding a goal in the fourth minute to finish the game 3-2 on top in a closely-contested game of end-to-end action and high drama at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on Wednesday.
It was the end of the road for Iran’s golden generation of footballers, who had brushed aside tournament favourites Japan in the quarterfinal and had overcome a spirited Syrian side in a penalty shootout in their first knockout game.
Their fans, thousands of whom had turned up to every Iran game and backed their team all the way through the action with relentless chanting and clapping, were left wondering how much longer they might have to wait for a fourth Asian title.
The worst nightmare
Qatar came into the match on the back of their first real test in the tournament, when they were taken all the way to a penalty shootout by Uzbekistan, and the prospect of facing the continent’s second-best side Iran was a cause of concern for their fans ahead of kickoff.
The hosts’ newly appointed coach Marquez Lopez had also termed the semifinal his team’s “toughest test yet” after going undefeated in the tournament so far.
Their worst nightmare turned into a reality when Iran’s out-of-form striker Sardar Azmoun struck the back of the net with an overhead kick in the first few minutes.
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 7, 2024
The roaring start drove Iran’s confidence and pushed Qatar to look for an equaliser. As a result, the game swung from one end of the pitch to the other, and Qatar finally levelled in the 17th minute with a scrappy finish from Jassem Gaber.
The fans of the al-Annabi – the Maroons – breathed a collective sigh of relief and finally found their voice.
The first half was edging towards its end with a 1-1 scoreline until Qatar’s favourite footballing son, Akram Afif, produced a moment of magic to put the home side in the lead and set off wild celebrations in the stands.
He shot from the edge of Iran’s box and saw the ball land in the far-right corner for one of the goals of the tournament.
Iran fans watched on in stunned silence for a few minutes before resuming their cheering duties.
When the game resumed, both teams surged forward in search of more goals, and Iran had their attempts rewarded with a penalty after a VAR check on an Iran corner. Team Melli’s captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh stepped up and coolly slotted home to bring his team to level.
The 2019 hero finds his feet again
Both teams drove the game from one end to the other and the crowd rode along on a wave of emotions.
Lopez, who was furious at his defenders for letting Iran run in with several chances, was given a yellow card. Meanwhile, Iran’s coach Amir Ghalenoei was much calmer as he watched Qatar launch attack after attack.
The fans were on their feet as the chances kept coming for both sides in the last 20 minutes.
In the end, it was Qatar’s hero from their 2019 title-winning run Almoez Ali who found the ball at his feet in front of an open goal and struck the decisive goal.
The local crowd swung their scarves and swayed to Qatar’s unofficial football anthem “Shoomilah Shoomilah” as they came within touching distance of the final.
Iran, being the tough opponents they are, did not relent but somehow can not find a way past the Qatari goal.
FT | 🇮🇷 IR Iran 2️⃣-3️⃣ Qatar 🇶🇦
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 7, 2024
The referee added 13 minutes of stoppage time, much to the bemusement of Qatar, but Iran still failed to break even.
In the end, as the referee’s full-time whistle blew, the men in white collapsed on the pitch with broken hearts and tired bodies.
Those in maroon ran up to their fans to join in the celebrations.
Ghalenoei cut a distraught figure in the Iranian technical area.
Later, in his post-match press conference, he told reporters they should blame him alone for the heartbreaking loss as his players had “given their all”.
“Recently was one of the worst days of my life,” he went on to add.
“But now, our work begins on building a team for the 2026 World Cup,” he said before trudging off.
Qatar’s hero and player of the match, Afif, admitted the game wasn’t an easy one to be part of but was thankful for the win. He said the best was “yet to come” from his team, who find themselves in an enviable position of having a chance to win an Asian Cup title at home.
Their fellow Arab nation and one of the success stories of this Asian Cup, Jordan, stand in their way.
Marquez, who has turned the Maroons’ fortunes around in the space of a few weeks, said his team will celebrate tonight but get back to work on Thursday in a bid to retain their title.
As for the al-Annabi’s fans, they beeped their cars out of the stadium and all the way up to Souq Waqif in the heart of the capital with “Shoomilah Shoomilah” on full blast.
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