Winless and pointless at the World Cup, Qatar is now one game away from back-to-back Asian Cup titles.
Almoez Ali struck in the 82nd-minute at Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday to seal a 3-2 win against Iran and settle a thrilling semifinal.
The host and defending champion will now play Jordan in Saturday’s final at Lusail Stadium, where Lionel Messi lifted the World Cup for Argentina in 2022.
How Qatar’s fortunes have changed since staging soccer’s most prestigious tournament just over a year ago.
“The World Cup (it) was the first time we had played in it. Yes we were the host and quite frankly it was quite difficult,” forward Akram Afif said. “This is the second major tournament at home. It helped us.”
Eliminated from its own World Cup at the earliest possible stage, Qatar exited almost without trace, losing all three of its group games.
That is a distant memory now, with Marquez Lopez’s team on the brink of retaining the Asian Cup title it won for the first time in 2019.
“We’ve one final step left to accomplish our target,” said the Spanish coach, who was only hired in December but has quickly become a national hero.
The scenes of celebration at Al Thumama were in stark contrast to Qatar’s meek exit from the World Cup, when it was certain of elimination even before its final group game.
Afif, its star player at this tournament, led the celebrations, bouncing in front of fans who roared with appreciation.
Earlier it had been Ali who sparked an eruption of noise with his decisive goal.
Ali was the leading scorer when Qatar won the trophy five years ago but has been overshadowed by Afif this time around.
Yet he came up with a crucial finish to preserve his country’s hopes for back-to-back titles in a game that swung one way and then another.
Sardar Azmoun fired Iran into the lead with an overhead kick in the fourth minute and Qatar responded with a deflected equalizer from Jassem Gaber in the 17th.
Afif scored his fifth goal of the tournament with a brilliant individual effort in the 43rd, only for Iran to level the game again six minutes into the second half from the penalty spot through Alireza Jahanbakhsh after a handball from Ahmed Fathy.
But Ali, who scored nine goals in the 2019 tournament, grabbed his second of this campaign when he fired low from inside the box late on.
Iran was reduced to 10 men when Shoja Khalilzadeh was sent off for a foul on Afif, and Jahanbakhsh still came close to forcing extra time by hitting the post in the 14th minute of stoppage time.
Qatar keeper Meshaal Barsham also had to produce a last-gasp save to deny Reza Asadi before the final whistle blew.
“Today was one of the worst days I’ve had in my life,” Iran coach Amir Ghalenoei said. “Our second-half performance was one of the best performances we’ve had. We missed a lot of opportunities.
“This is football. When you don’t get what you want from your chances you are going to be punished and this is what happened today.”
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