Qatar won the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in their history after defeating Japan 3-1 in front of 36,776 people at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Two stunning first half goals by Almoez Ali (12’) and Abdulaziz Hatem (27’) put Qatar in control. Japan’s constant second half pressure led to them pulling one back through Takumi Minamino (69’) but a penalty by Akram Afif (83’) sealed an impressive win for the team of the tournament.
Prior to kick-off the AFC had been quick to dismiss a protest by host nation United Arab Emirates regarding whether Almoez Ali and Bassam Al Rawi were eligible to play.
This may not be the last on the matter with documents still being produced but the decision allowed Qatar to have their full squad available for the showpiece.
Samurai Blue made one change to the side that comprehensively defeated Iran 3-0 in the semi-final with Tsukasa Shiotani taking the place of Wataru Endo in midfield.
Qatar welcomed back Bassam Al Rawi and Hatem following their suspensions in the 4-0 demolition of United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their semi-final.
Japan took the initiative during the early stages but the game’s first shot on target produced the opening goal for Qatar. Their front pair combined once again with Afif providing his seventh assist of the competition.
He chipped in a cross from the left to Almoez who took the ball on the volley with his back to goal. He juggled it once more in the air and then produced a bicycle kick that landed awkwardly in front of Shuichi Gonda who mistimed his dive and the ball crept into the corner of the net.
That bit of brilliance had taken Almoez to nine goals in the competition, a new record (0-1).
One minute later and the pair combined again with Almoez looking certain to make it two. Afif fed the ball through and only a wonderful last ditch block by Japan’s captain Maya Yoshida prevented Qatar’s lethal striker from grabbing his second.
In the 26th minute they’d achieved just that. Full of confidence, Qatar exchanged a number of short passes as they moved forward with Afif, inevitably, making the final one this time to Hatem.
As Almoez made a run to open up some space Hatem surged forward and unleashed a delicious curling shot from outside the area into the far corner giving Gonda no chance (0-2).
Japan now had to find a way past a defence that hadn’t conceded in any of their previous six matches. They started mounting pressure particularly down the right flank with their playmaker Ritsu Doan.
Qatar’s strength, speed and ability to read the situations kept them at bay with goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb never tested throughout the half.
Unlike the semi-final against UAE when the availability of tickets to Qatar’s supporters appeared to be restricted there were several contingents of fans cheering their team on.
Nine minutes before half-time and Qatar came close to making it three. Again there was a lovely interchange of passes as they surged forward.
Afif fed Ró-Ró who’s shot at goal was blocked but fell at the far post to Hassan Al Haydos but the angle proved to be too tight with his effort crashing off the upright.
As expected, Japan forced the pace again at the start of the second half. They were trying everything with crosses into the box to try and find the heads of Osako or Yoshida and then defence splitting passes through the middle with Takehiro Tomiyasu coming close to getting on the end of one from Yoshida.
In the 56th minute Hatem could easily have scored his second. Once more Afif was the creator finding Hatem with space and only a few metres from goal but he scuffed his shot over the bar as he turned.
Two minutes after coming on as a 62nd minute substitute Yoshinori Muto should have done better with a header when he made good contact but put Doan’s cross well wide. Shortly afterwards his back header from a Gaku Shibasaki corner climb harmlessly over the crossbar.
At last Qatar’s defence gave. The move started on the right and the ball found it’s way through to Osako and his clever touch gave Takumi Minamino the chance to slide through the defensive line and chip a shot over Al Sheeb (1-2).
Qatar had barely been out of their own half during the second period but in the 79th minute a break led to the decider. Afif had been on his own up front but Hatem swiftly joined him and when he found space to line up a shot it was blocked and spun over the bar.
Abdelkarim Hassan’s header from the resulting corner was towards goal but hit the arm of Yoshida and with the help of the Video Assistant Referee Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov awarded a penalty and booked Japan’s captain. Afif stepped up and made no mistake (1-3).
Yoshida could have made amends and set up a grandstand finish but, with two minutes to go, he failed to keep a header down when he looked certain to score from Minamino’s flick.
Despite the defeat this has turned out to be a good tournament for the Samurai Blue.
They started the competition with an unconvincing 3-2 win over Turkmenistan and failed to impress in any of their group matches but won them all.
It was only in the second half of their semi-final against Iran that their football suddenly became enlightened again.
The opening goal by Yuya Osako seemed to shake off the shackles and they completed the game in impressive style. They were able to carry their newfound confidence into the final but it wasn’t enough against a rock solid Qatar.
When you win every game scoring more goals than any other team and only concede one throughout you are worthy champions and that title was earned by record breaking Qatar.