The second day of the Asian Cup quarterfinals has set the stage for a sensational day for Middle Eastern football.
In the first match, Qatar played South Korea and Heung Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, in Abu Dhabi.
The first half was running under a Korean possession, with tight defensive play by both teams, as the Qataris struggled to develop their game without two key players - Abdelkarim Hassan and Assim Madibo - who both were sidelined with yellow cards from previous games. Felix Sanchez players played mainly on counter attacks, but Almoez Ali and Akram Afif weren’t lethal as they were during the group stage.
The second half kicked off in a completely different theme. Qatar was proactive, played forward through the middle and attacked the Koreans wave after wave.
South Korea hasn’t backed down, but Son couldn’t create enough goal chances to his friends as well hasn’t played in his favourite spot on the wing. Coach Paulo Bento again fielded the Korean star in the middle, what made the Korean game not balanced, especially in front of the Qatari cohesive unit.
When it looked the game will remain goal-less, on the 78th minute the blockade was breached. Abdulaziz Hatem got the ball from Akram Afif in the middle around 25 meters from goal, and with two small touches and an accurate shot, sent the ball behind goalkeeper Kim Seung Gyu to the back of the net and made it 1-0 for the Qataris.
The Annabis kept their defence close until the final whistle and secured their historical victory for a first-ever Asian Cup semifinal spot, after having been knocked out at the quarter-final stages in both 2000 and 2011.
In addition, Qatar is yet to concede a single goal at this year’s Asian Cup, equaling the record of consecutive clean sheets from the start of competition: 5; South Korea in 2015 and Iran in this tournament too.
Despite their fans not allowed to enter the UAE, despite the sneers and whistles they get in every stadium in the tournament - the Qataris have made a tremendous achievement.
In the second game, Hazza bin Zayed Stadium filled up with almost 20,000 fans for the match between the home team, the United Arab Emirates, and the 2015 Asian Cup champions, Australia.
A pacy, fascinating first half seen both sides gaining scoring chances but the score remained 0:0 at halftime.
On every dangerous attack of the Emiratis, the Socceroos answered with one of their own. Goalkeeper Matt Ryan was in the right place at the right time for his teammates as well as Khalid Eisa who was focused and saved the UAE several times. And then, the clock showed the 68th minute and a bizarre move took place and changed the match completely.
Australian central back Milos Degenek has passed the ball back without noticing who’s there, and Ali Mabkhout, the 2015 edition’s top scorer, ran quickly and took the ball, went through Ryan and scored with a cool touch in front of the open net. 1-0 UAE, and the stadium, almost full, was in ecstasy. Mabkhout has now scored nine goals in Asian Cup tournaments, with only Iran’s Ali Daei (14) and South Korea’s Lee Dong-Gook (10) have scored more than him in the competition’s history.
From that moment on, the match became a battlefield, in a scenario mixing drama, celebration and sacrifice, by both sides. Fares Juma has lost consciousness after he and Mathew Leckie went head to head on the ball and collided. Juma received the treatment and asked to come back to the field, Leckie got a headband, and in the process, Australia almost scored twice.
Eventually, the match ended after 10 (!) minutes of stoppage time, with a huge roar from the stands in Al-Ain - the host team is in the semifinal.
The UAE has reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup for a second consecutive tournament.
It was a good day for the West Asian teams, as now everything is set for a massive battle between the UAE and the growing power of Asian football & black horses of the tournament - Qatar.