Qatar players had to muster every ounce of their physical and mental strength to overcome a dogged Oman Friday.
And they did it in a dramatic fashion.
The host’s second group encounter of the FIFA Arab Cup at the Education City Stadium was heading towards a draw when Qatar’s star man Akram Afif played a sumptuous cross to the box in the seventh and last minute of the stoppage time. Substitute Mohamed Muntari charged in to head the ball, but only to miss as it deflected off Oman defender Fahmi Durbin and hit the crossbar and bounced down behind the goal line before being gathered by goalkeeper Ibrahim al-Mukhaini.
Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio allowed the play to carry on as Qatar players claimed the goal. A good thirty seconds later Sampaio was informed by VAR that the ball had crossed the goal line as Qatari players, led by Afif, sprinted towards the fans to celebrate.
It was that energy and never-say-die attitude that made the Maroons the first team to enter the quarter-finals of this edition's Arab Cup. Truth to tell, after an impressive first half – where Afif’s penalty had put them 1-0 ahead – Qatar players lacked energy and focus.
All the travels they have done over the past year to Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers to Europe seemed to be catching up to them. After an initial burst of energy, they looked weary with coach Felix Sanchez later admitting ‘they are human beings, not machines.’
But the Spaniard was delighted with the effort his boys put in, especially in the second half when they had to deal with sustained pressure from Oman.
“Despite the length of the season and playing many matches, my players fought hard. They are still doing their best. They are human beings, not machines,” he said.
"Both teams tried their best to win, but we managed to get the victory. I think we played very well in the first half but in the second Oman played more direct and it was difficult for us to manage. But our players showed full commitment, good spirit in the final minutes of the game and were able to score at the death. It's a very good result and hopefully it will give us confidence for upcoming matches,” Sanchez added.
Qatar are now assured of top spot in Group A after consecutive wins, with Iraq occupying second place in the standings after a goalless draw against Bahrain at the Al Thumama Stadium Friday. Qatar play their final group game against Iraq on Monday at the Al Bayt Stadium. The race for second place in the group and a quarter-final spot remains, with Iraq, Bahrain and Oman all in contention – the last two teams on a point each facing another on Monday.
Sanchez hinted at giving opportunities to reserve players against Iraq before they get ready for quarters. “After this result, we will finish top of our group which is amazing for us. But we have one more game and we want to play well and make our fans happy. We will try to give some minutes to other players. Then we also have to prepare for the quarter-finals, which will be a difficult one,” he said.
If one Qatar player who needs to be wrapped in cotton wool is Akram Afif. The Al Sadd forward has looked in imperious touch in both the matches. Afif, who provided the assist in Qatar's 1-0 win over Bahrain, was against the difference maker Friday. After winning a penalty and then converting it himself, his decisive cross in the final minute sealed the game for his country.
Sanchez made three changes from the Bahrain game, starting with captain Hassan al-Haydos, Abdelkarim Hassan and Karim Boudiaf, with the trio replacing Mohamed Waad, Tarek Salman and Assim Madibo.
Qatar came all out attacking and won three corners in the first five minutes but could not take advantage. Afif set up a couple of decent chances but Hassan Almoez Ali could not capitalise on it.
Afif then took it on his own hands to fire the hosts ahead. The 25-year-old was brought down by Ahmed al-Khamisi in the 32nd minute before stepping up to place the penalty in the bottom right corner, beyond the dive of al-Mukhaini.
Oman came out as a different side in the second half and were more direct as Qatar players sat deep, defending the one-goal advantage. Their perseverance finally paid off in the 73rd minute as Khalid al-Hajri jumped above two Qatari defenders to the ball with a diving header into the Qatar net, following a cross from Abdullah Fawaz.
The hosts’ shoulders dropped as Oman went in search of the winner. But it was Qatar who had the best chance when Muntari, who came in two minutes before full time to replace Abdulaziz Hatem, headed the ball just wide in stoppage time. But Qatar were not to be denied as Afif turned out to be a hero once again with his deft cross Durbin inadvertently turning into his own goal.