Debutants Tajikistan scored twice late to overcome Lebanon 2-1 and advance to the Asian Cup knockout stages on Monday, while China’s hopes are hanging by a thread after losing to Qatar.
It was a night of drama as Group A came to a spectacular finale full of twists and turns.
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Host and holders Qatar had already advanced to the last 16 as group champions, but China, Lebanon, and Tajikistan were all battling to join them.
The top two from each of the six groups qualify automatically, but so do the four best third-place teams, giving an added dimension of drama.
Tajikistan, led by the flamboyant Croatian coach Petar Segrt, has been one of the tournament’s surprises.
“Believe me, I don’t care who is coming,” the 57-year-old told beINSPORTS when asked who he wanted to fight next.
“This is a historical moment. Tomorrow, we’ll meet with our country’s president.
Qatar concluded with a perfect nine points, Tajikistan had four, China had two, and Lebanon had one — and was on its way home.
Tajikistan believed they had grabbed the lead on the verge of halftime, but the referee ruled the goal off for the slightest of offsides.
Their sorrow was exacerbated almost immediately after the restart, as Bangkok United striker Bassel Jradi arched in a beautiful shot from the outskirts of the box to put Lebanon ahead.
However, Lebanon quickly had a player sent off after a VAR review converted Kassem El Zein’s yellow card for a studs-up challenge to a red.
With a man advantage, Parvizdzhon Umarbaev scored a free kick in the 80th minute to tie the game.
As things were, the Tajiks were going through, but they kept pushing for a winner, which came in the second of 16 minutes of added time via Nuriddin Khamrokulov’s precise reverse header.
In the other game, Qatar overcame a dull China 1-0, leaving the Chinese to hope for a miracle: that their two points would be enough to qualify as one of the four best third-placed teams.
Qatari players celebrate their first goal against China at Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium on January 22, 2024. Photo: AFP.
If China does go out, they will have no complaints: they failed to score in each of their three matches and were unable to win or even tie a much-changed Qatar team that had previously won Group A.
Hassan Al-Haydos’ 66th-minute miracle goal completed the hosts’ and holders’ perfect three-game winning streak in Doha.
A corner found Haydos waiting on the outside of the box, and he sent a volley into the net.
China will lament numerous squandered opportunities, particularly in the first half, with Wei Shihao especially wasteful in front of goal.