Fresh from being named as the Asian Player of the Year, Akram Afif inspired Qatar to the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup semi-finals with a 4-2 win over the United Arab Emirates on Monday.
Qatar needed just a draw in their last Group A match at the Khalifa International Stadium, but victory was never in doubt after Afif put the hosts 2-0 up inside thirty minutes.
Ali Mabkhout converted a penalty to revive UAE’s hopes at half-time, but a 53rd minute strike from captain Hassan al-Haydos restored Qatar’s two-goal advantage. Mabkhout kept UAE in the contest with a goal in the 77th minute, but the visitors could not find an equaliser even as Boualem Khoukhi headed in for Qatar’s fourth goal in injury time.
Qatar finished Group A with six points, having lost to Iraq in the opening match. Iraq, meanwhile, emerged as the group toppers with seven points after a goalless draw against Yemen at the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium on Monday.
Qatar will play Saudi Arabia, who beat defending champions Oman 3-1 on Monday, in the semi-finals on Thursday.
Afif, who had missed his coronation as Asia’s best player at yesterday’s AFC Annual Awards ceremony in Hong Kong, had a spring in his step every time he touched the ball. The Al Sadd forward has been a revelation since he burst onto the scene at the Asian Cup earlier this year, where his 10 assists and one goal helped Qatar win their maiden continental title.
Last night, a crowd of more than 40,000 got a closer look at Afif’s talent as the 23-year-old put on a show. Afif was not just a constant threat every time he went forward, but also acted the provider for most of Qatar chances.
“It’s a great day for him and Qatar,” head coach Felix Sanchez said after the game. “We are very happy for him. I have known him since 2006, football is his life. He always works hard and is a thorough professional. He deserves every accolade that will come his way. He showed his quality again today,” the Spaniard added.
The UAE defence looked shaky from the beginning as Mohamed Barqesh failed to read a long ball from Khoukhi. Abdulkarim Hassan, Qatar’s hat-trick hero against Yemen on Friday, raced into the box only to see his shot hit the side net.
Almoez Ali had a chance to put Qatar ahead in the 20th minute but swiped his shot wide. The striker, however, made amends two minutes later. After UAE defender Mohamed Marzooq took forever to clear the ball, Almoez intercepted the ball which landed into Afif’s feet and the midfielder steered the ball into the bottom right-hand corner.
UAE were under the pump thereafter as the hosts raided the goal repeatedly and it was another error from Barqesh that saw Qatar double their advantage in the 28th minute. Barqesh had handled the ball in the box, which referee Sato Ryuji had failed to spot. But after a lengthy VAR review, the Japanese referee handed the penalty to Qatar, with Afif sending al-Shamsi the wrong way to put his team in command.
UAE were let back into the game after Qatar goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb conceded a penalty as he brought down a charging Bandar Mohamed in the box in the 33rd minute. Mabkhout, the UAE’s all-time top scorer, put the ball in the left-hand-side of the net, to keep his side in the game at half-time.
Afif continued to be a threat in the second half but was unlucky not to get his third goal after his shot hit the top bar in the 48th minute. Al-Haydos though got Qatar’s third five minutes later. The Qatari captain started the move from the midfield and passed the ball to Almoez, who lost the ball in a melee with UAE defenders, but al-Haydos was on hand to slam the ball into the net.
Mabkhout, however, gave UAE a glimmer of hope when the forward headed the ball in from a corner in 77th minute. It was 29-year-old’s fifth goal of the tournament, making him the top-scorer of the competition.
With Qatar coach Sanchez ringing in changes by substituting Afif and al-Haydos, UAE sensed an opportunity. But on the night, Qatar players remained composed and thwarted UAE’s attack.
To make the victory much sweeter, Khoukhi scored off a header in the last minute of the contest. As the final whistle was blown by Ryuji, the home crowd erupted in joy even as the Qatar players lined up to show gratitude to the fans for their support.
“Congratulations to all of Qatar, the fans and the players,” a delighted Sanchez said. “We played a good match in both the halves and created many chances while converting some of them. We deserved the victory,” he added.
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