It was heartbreak for Qatar as the hosts went down fighting to Saudi Arabia 0-1 in the semi-finals of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup on Thursday.
At the Al Janoub Stadium, the Asian champions were unlucky to bow out of the competition despite putting on a brave show in front of a packed crowd.
Abdullah al-Hamdan’s 28th minute header turned out to be the winner for Saudis, who will face Bahrain in Sunday’s final at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Bahrain had earlier knocked out Iraq in the first semi-final at the Abdullah bin Khalifa stadium after winning via penalty shootout, with both sides locked at 2-2 after extra time.
While Saudi will be looking for their fourth Gulf Cup title – their first since 2003 – Bahrain will finally hope to end their drought, after having finished runners-up four times in the competition.
On the eve of the tournament, Saudi coach Herve Renard had picked out defence as the backbone of his team. And the Frenchman proved to be right, as his defenders stood like a rock even as Qatar players fired in 21 attempts on the night. Saudi had only four shots but three of them were on target, to hosts just two.
Qatar came close to scoring many times with their best chance coming off Abdulaziz Hatem in the 63rd minute. The midfielder’s audacious attempt from the corner slammed into top of the post before it hit Saudi goalkeeper Fawaz al-Qarni’s head.
Qatar’s head coach Felix Sanchez followed his blueprint which has given him much success this year, employing a 3-4-2-1 formation. It was an aggressive one, with Abdelkarim Hassan and Pedro Miguel continuing to play as wingers. And it almost gave Qatar success as early as in the seventh minute.
Pedro burst into the right side and fired a cross into the box, but Almoez Ali could only get a tiny touch as the ball went out. Captain Nawaf al-Abed had a chance to put Saudi in front in the 16th minute but hit straight to goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb.
There were no clear cut chances for both sides until an al-Sheeb mistake provided the breakthrough for the Saudis in the 28th minute. Sultan al-Ghanam played, what looked like an innocuous ball into the Qatar box, but al-Sheeb reacted slowly to clear the aerial ball by which time al-Hamdan got a slight touch on the ball. Salem al-Hajri made a last ditch effort but the ball had already gone in.
Two minutes later the hosts could have equalised after al-Qarni fumbled to collect the ball, but Qatar players were nowhere near the ball to take advantage. While their defence looked vulnerable, the hosts’ sheer potency in attack kept them in the game. But the Asian player of the Year Akram Afif had an off day, while Pedro, Almoez Ali and Hatim spurned their chances.
It was all Qatar in the second half as the hosts went all out in attack in search for an equaliser. But it took them 60th minute to create a goal-scoring opportunity, with both Hassan and Hatim shooting wide. In the meantime, Saudi players had dropped back to guard their goal but were a threat on the counter. In the 62nd minute, the Green Falcons had a chance to double the lead when al-hamdan was clear on goal, but Boualem Khoukhi’s timely intervention blocked the 20-year-old’s shot.
Thereafter, desperate Qatar players continued to pound the Saudi defence. While Almoez was late to latch onto a fine pass from Afif, Hatem’s ferocious corner that bounced off the post indicated it was not meant to be Qatar’s night.
Saudi had their own misfortune in the 83rd minute, when Mohamed Kanu’s shot struck the post. The rebound fell into Yasir al-Shahrani, whose shot was tipped off by al-sheeb.
With time running out for Qatar, Afif had the best chance in the 85th minute but his header flew well off the target. The Al Annabi had more than 70 percent of the possession in the last 20 minutes, but despite a sustained pressure they could not take the game into extra time.
By Sahan Bidappa
© Gulf Times Newspaper 2019