The footballing cliché of a game of two halves reared its ugly head on Tuesday evening, as Qatar edged out Iraq 1-0 to seal their place in the Quarter-finals of the Asian Cup.
Perhaps more shocking was just how well Qatar started in Abu Dhabi considering the calibre of their opponent. As Abdulkarim Hassan smashed the crossbar on just the third minute, you had a feeling that Al Anabi may have played their hand early.
The first half showed Qatar at their free-flowing best with Akram Afif, in particular, impressing on his foray’s forward. Whilst Iraq showed signs of attacking intent in the first half, it was Qatar who had the best chances as Abdulkarim Hassan smashed the upright for a second time minutes before the break. Qatar had the better of possession and chances and it showed.
Whilst the second half, Qatar elected to sit back playing with five in defence switching to a more counter-attacking style. Coach Felix Sanchez expected a reaction from Iraq in the second half, and he wasn’t wrong as the 2009 winners pressed forward looking for an opener. The goal itself was perfect in design. Afif was bundled down just outside the box by Ali Husni and Bassam Al-Rawi stepped up to score an inch-perfect free-kick.
From then it was a defensive masterclass from Qatar, with Abdulkarim Hassan, Tarek Salman & keeper Saad Al Sheeb putting in exceptional performances to clear the ball away. It may have not been the prettiest, but it was effective and Qatar held on to reach the final eight.
Central to this has been the tactics employed by Sanchez and his coaching staff. It’s clear that the side has been pushed hard defensively and this was underlined by their movement in the defensive third as they shut down crosses from Iraq. The fact that Qatar can switch seamlessly from a possession-based game to a fast past counter-attacking team is a testament to the work of the Spanish coach and his side.
Up next will be the challenge of South Korea, who under Paulo Bento have employed overly defensive tactics in recent games. Bahrain certainly showed that the Korean’s can be frustrated, particularly if Son Heung-min is targeted. For now, Sanchez has till Friday to mull over his options, which has been exaggerated by the suspension of Abdulkarim Hassan. Providing Sanchez can get the balance right, Qatar could be looking at a first-ever appearance at the semi-finals of the Asian Cup.