Asian Cup braces for one last surprise as Qatar face Jordan in final

Jordan’s midfielder #13 Mahmoud al-Mardi in action during the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup semi-final football match between Jordan and South Korea at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on February 6, 2024. AFP

An Asian Cup full of late goals and surprises reaches a climax on Saturday when hosts and holders Qatar face a Jordan side looking to make yet more history.

The 88 000-capacity Lusail Stadium, where Lionel Messi’s Argentina beat France in the World Cup final 14 months ago, will stage the final act of four weeks of Asian football.

Few would have predicted it would come down to a decider between a Qatar side who swapped coaches one month before the Asian Cup and a Jordan team ranked 87 in the world.

Pre-tournament favourites Japan were dumped out in the quarter-finals by Iran, who then went down in a 3-2 semi-final thriller to Qatar on Wednesday.

In a competition raining late goals, it should have been little surprise that Qatar’s winner came eight minutes from time when Almoez Ali turned in to break Iranian hearts.

“I’m very happy for Qatar, the people of Qatar, the fans and the players,” said coach Tintin Marquez, the Spaniard who was spirited in to replace Carlos Queiroz less than four weeks before the competition.

“The match was very complex but we played a big game, the players didn’t spare any effort. Now we have one final step left to defend our title.”

They have been keen to avoid the topic, but winning the Asian Cup for a second time and retaining their crown will exorcise the demons of Qatar’s World Cup flop.

Their three defeats when they staged the World Cup in 2022 was the worst record of any host in the competition’s history.

In 27-year-old striker Akram Afif, Qatar have one of the players of the tournament and he scored a glorious goal against Iran to take his tally to five in six games.

Qatar would be the fifth team to win back-to-back Asian Cups.

– ‘Mindset of champions’ –

With much of the crowd behind them and as reigning champions, Qatar will be expected to beat a Jordan side ranked 29 places below them by FIFA.

But under their widely admired Moroccan coach Hussein Ammouta, Jordan have repeatedly proved the doubters wrong.

They held South Korea 2-2 in the group phase, then scored twice in second-half injury time to storm back and dump Iraq out 3-2 in the last 16.

They ended the fairytale run of tournament debutants Tajikistan 1-0 in the quarter-finals, before handing out a lesson to South Korea in Jordan’s first Asian Cup semi-final.

That deserved 2-0 win left Jurgen Klinsmann hanging onto his job as South Korea coach and skipper Son Heung-min wondering if he will ever reign over Asia.

South Korea had roared back late in matches on four occasions until then — Korean media dubbed it “zombie football” — but there was no way back from the dead this time.

“We displayed the mindset of champions, showing resilience and determination in every aspect of the game,” said Ammouta, having taken Jordan into their first Asian Cup semi-final and now their first final.

He added: “We must defend this shirt with everything we’ve got.

“We are growing more ambitious by the hour.”

Qatar’s danger men in attack will be Afif and Ali, who have seven goals between them so far, but Jordan are equally potent with the pace and power of Yazan Al-Naimat and Mousa Al-Tamari.

They have scored six times at the tournament together and Tottenham’s Son could only stand back and admire in the semi-final as the 26-year-old Tamari scored one of the goals of the tournament.

The Montpellier man picked the ball up deep in his own half, sliced through the hesitant Korean rearguard, left a defender on his backside and swept the ball into the bottom corner.

Qatar have been warned.

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