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Qatar Advances to the Asian Cup Knockout Stages. China’s Hopes Are in the Balance

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
Qatar’s Akram Afif gestures during the Asian Cup Group A soccer match between Tajikistan and Qatar at Al Bayt stadium, in Al Khor, Qatar, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Dumped out of its own World Cup at the earliest possible stage in 2022, Qatar looks intent on sticking around at the Asian Cup.

The host and defending champion became the first team to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament on Wednesday after a 1-0 win against Tajikistan.

Akram Afif scored his third goal in two games to secure victory at Al Bayt Stadium and ensure Qatar goes through as Group A winner.

It is all a far cry from the World Cup when, as host, Qatar exited the competition at the group stage after three straight losses.

Now maximum points from its opening two games have given Bartolome Lopez’s team the perfect start to its defense of the Asian Cup.

And it has one of the most impressive players of the tournament in Afif, who lifted a shot over Tajikstan goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov in the 17th minute for the only goal of the game.

The forward had spoken of his desire to return to Europe after spells in Spain and Belgium earlier in his career, and he is likely to have earned admirers for his performances so far for Qatar as the tournament’s leading scorer.

Tajikistan ended the game with 10 men after Amadoni Kamolov was sent off in the 81st.

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
Qatar’s Hasan Al Haydos, left, Almoez Ali, center, and Akram Afif celebrate after the Asian Cup Group A soccer match between Tajikistan and Qatar at Al Bayt stadium, in Al Khor, Qatar, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. Qatar won 1-0.

CHINA STRUGGLES

After back-to-back draws, China likely needs at least a point against Qatar to have a chance of advancing to the knockout stage.

A 0-0 draw with Lebanon left both nations’ hopes of reaching the round of 16 in the balance.

China was a quarterfinalist in each of the last two Asian Cups and is second in Group A on two points. But it has the daunting task of facing Qatar in its final game and is at risk of being overtaken by Lebanon or Tajikistan.

“We know that we depend on ourselves and that is something that every team would like to be in that position before the last game,” China coach Aleksandar Jankovic said. “No matter (if) we play against a host country … Qatar with their World Cup experience, we still depend on ourselves and I always like to be in this kind of situation.”

Lebanon hit the woodwork twice and China saw an effort cleared off the line at Al Thumama Stadium.

Lebanon lost 3-0 to Qatar in its opening game and is bottom of the group with one point, but still has a chance to progress. Lebanon, China and Tajikistan could still advance as runner-up or one of the best third-place teams..

“It’s a very important point for us especially after a tough defeat against Qatar,” coach Lebanon Miodrag Radulovic said. “We hit two posts, but unfortunately we didn’t score again. I’m satisfied with this point because we are still in the game to the end for the next round.”

Hassan Maatouk and Hasan Srour hit the bar for Lebanon either side of halftime.

Wu Lei thought he’d broken the deadlock for China in the 65th minute, but his close-range range shot was hooked off the line.

China came close to scoring in the first half when Lebanon goalkeeper Mostafa Matar twice denied Zhang Yuning in one threatening attack.

Substitute Lin Liangming should have been more clinical late in the match, but headed wide when unmarked right in front of goal.

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
Lebanon’s goalkeeper Mostafa Matar, on ground, falls in an attempt to make a save during the Asian Cup Group A soccer match between China and Lebanon at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.