DOHA – Goal-scorer Akram Afif said “the best is yet to come” after hosts and holders Qatar squeezed into an Asian Cup final against Jordan with a dramatic 3-2 win over Iran, AFP reported.
Almoez Ali struck in the 82nd minute in Doha to send Qatar into their second consecutive final, further exorcising the demons of their first-round exit at the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar lost all three of their World Cup games on home soil just over a year ago, the worst record of any host in the competition’s history.
But that was all a distant memory as they celebrated in front of over 40,000 fans after a breathless semi-final at Al Thumama Stadium.
“This victory was not easy,” said Afif, who scored his fifth goal of the tournament to give Qatar a half-time lead.
“We are very proud of ourselves and our fans.
They deserve tonight’s win and hopefully the best is yet to come.” Iran had Shojae Khalilzadeh sent off in injury time before an ugly confrontation between both sets of players flared after the final whistle. “The things we were hearing from the stands was not really nice and respectful, that’s why there was a reaction afterwards,” said Iran winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
It came at the end of a frenetic encounter that saw both teams go on the attack from the first whistle.
Sardar Azmoun gave Iran the lead in the fourth minute before Qatar equalised soon after when Jassem Gaber’s shot went in via a heavy deflection.
Afif then scored with a wonderful strike minutes before half-time, only for Iran to equalise through a Jahanbakhsh penalty early in the second period.
Match-winner Ali scored an Asian Cup-record nine goals to lead Qatar to the 2019 title but he had managed only one heading into the semi-finals of this year’s tournament.
His late strike was worth the wait for Qatar, who will now try to beat Jordan in Saturday’s final for their second Asian title. “I think that we played a very big match,” said Qatar coach Tintin Marquez, who took over from Carlos Queiroz only a month before the tournament.
“The players did not spare any effort tonight. Now we have one final step left in order for us to defend our title.”
‘Worst day of my life’ Qatar’s win ended Iran’s bid for a first Asian Cup since 1976. They had several chances to take the game into extra time, with Jahanbakhsh hitting the post in the final minute of added time.
Coach Amir Ghalenoei apologised to the Iranian fans and called it “one of the worst days of my life”.
“But this is football and if you don’t take your chances then you will be punished,” he added.
The game had barely begun when Azmoun gave Iran the lead with a well-taken finish, hooking the ball over his head and into the net.
Qatar equalised in the 17th minute when Afif pulled the ball back for Gaber, whose shot on goal deflected off Iran’s Saeed Ezatolahi and looped up over goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
The equaliser gave Qatar new energy and Afif curled home a superb strike after jinking his way into the box in the 43rd minute.
Iran regrouped at half-time and drew level just six minutes after the break. A VAR check ruled that Qatar defender Ahmed Fatehi had blocked a goal-bound shot with his hand and Jahanbakhsh made no mistake from the penalty spot.
The action continued at breakneck speed and Ali decisively restored Qatar’s lead when he controlled a shot from Abdulaziz Hatem and turned it past Beiranvand.