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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Qatar need Almoez Ali back to his best if they are to keep alive their Asian Cup title defence


Five years on from claiming their maiden AFC Asian Cup title, Qatar are now just two games away from retaining their crown.

Still, if they are to do so, they could really do with a return to top form for one of the pivotal figures in that 2019 triumph.

With a staggering nine-goal haul last time out, Almoez Ali would not just end up with an Asian Cup winner’s medal around his neck but also departed the United Arab Emirates with the Top Scorer and Most Valuable Player awards in his grasp.

No one could argue with him being recognised as the standout individual of the tournament, even if teammate Akram Afif was equally deserving of the honour after racking up ten assists.

Fast forward to 2024, while Afif is again having an exceptional campaign, the same cannot be said for Almoez.

The lanky striker can never be faulted for his work rate and he never stops trying despite leading the line on his own.

The role he plays as the focal point of the Qatar attack is also extremely crucial, with his link-up work often bringing the likes of Afif and Hassan Al-Haydos into play from their deeper attacking positions.

Yet, the fact of the matter remains that — with just one goal to his name — Almoez is severely down on his ordinary output, even if he is not expected to repeat his free-scoring efforts from the last edition.

When considering that the 27-year-old’s sole strike thus far came in their opening 3-0 win over Lebanon, it means that he has now failed to find the back of the net in three starts – having sat out their final Group A tie with China.

What is even more concerning is that he has not been missing chances but is not even getting them, having mustered just six shots on goal with only two on target.

Fortunately for the Qataris, they have proven they are not solely reliant on him this edition.

Afif has stepped up with four goals to put himself in the running to be named MVP of this tournament, while captain Al-Haydos has rolled back the years with two goals in what is likely to be his fourth and final Asian Cup at the age of 33.

Nonetheless, Qatar will face their biggest test in the semifinals on Wednesday when they come up against fellow powerhouses Iran, who are arguably the title favourites now after seeing off Japan with an assured display in the previous stage.

One of Iran’s biggest strengths lies in attack with Porto star Mehdi Taremi and Roma striker Sardar Azmoun leading the line and ably supported by fellow Europe-based names Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Saman Ghoddos, and they even have an experienced campaigner like Karim Ansarifard waiting to be called upon.

But Team Melli are also no slouches in defence.

Even with Sadegh Moharrami and Majid Hosseini ruled out for the rest of the tournament through injury, Iran can still string together an experienced back four who are extremely comfortable playing alongside one another.

In Hossein Kanaanizadegan and Shoja’ Khalilzadeh, they have two formidable centre-backs who will not need a second invitation to assert their authority from the opening whistle.

While Iran have conceded four times at this Asian Cup, they have never let in more than one goal in a single game and, even then, one of those has come from the penalty spot and another was after an uncharacteristic error by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

The Qataris will be under no illusion as to the magnitude of the task at hand if they want to march on to Saturday’s final and keep alive their hopes of retaining their status as continental champions.

It will already be tough enough as it is coming up against powerhouses who are ranked 21st in the world, who will also have no shortage of motivation as they gun for a first title since 1976.

And it will only get even more difficult if they do not have Almoez back to his best and firing on all cylinders.

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