DOHA, Qatar — After 107 minutes of chaos, 107 minutes of controversy, intensity and heartstopping moments, Qatar will play in their second straight Asian Cup final after defeating Iran 3-2 at Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday evening.
They will seek to defend their Asian crown against Jordan at Lusail Stadium on Saturday, looking to become the first back-to-back champions since Japan did so across the tournament’s 2000 and 2004 iterations.
And they’ve got their star, their talisman, Akram Afif, largely to thank for it, as well Almoez Ali being in the right place at the right time, some of the most heartstopping minutes of extra time in recent memory, and one of the most dramatic saves from Meshaal Barsham one will ever see.
With the seconds ticking away and elimination staring at them in the face, Iran was hurling themselves forward with desperation in Doha. 13 minutes of extra time had been displayed on the fourth official’s board and that was now gone; the game was at the mercy of the referee and any further time he had tacked on for stoppages after the 90.
With the clock reading 105, the ball fell kindly for substitute Reza Asadi for a shot, one that was slicing off-target until it took a wicked touch off Ahmed Fathi and was redirected in the opposite direction, back towards the bottom corner.
Somehow, though, Barsham reacted, getting back across to his left and putting it out for a corner. It almost defied all reason that he’d been able to do so but he had.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh had hit the post two minutes prior to give him a gift, and now he was taking advantage with a save that will long be remembered.
His opposite number Alireza Beiranvand came forward for the subsequent corner and stayed up as Iran camped out searching for one last moment of heartstopping magic but there was to be no further twist.
Amidst the emotion, the two sides clashed as Qatari players moved to celebrate with their fans on the touchline after the whistle, emotions boiling over for Iranian players at the end of a contest that, inevitably, will see far more controversy in the hours and days following.
Iran had won their last six games against Qatar before Wednesday, including a 4-0 at the Jordan International Tournament just last October. They had outscored the Maroons 11-1 across those fixtures. But on this night, it wasn’t to be.
Across a chaotic first half, one defined by its frenetic energy, back and forth thrust and counter thrust, and, yes, significant controversy that continued into the second stanza, it was Afif who had emerged from the maelstrom to drag his side back from a deficit and put them in a lead they wouldn’t relinquish — setting up Jassem Gaber‘s goal in the 17th minute before lasering an effort into the top corner of the net in the 43rd.
It was the attacker’s fifth goal of this Asian Cup, alongside his equal tournament-leading third assist, keeping his side in a game against an Iranian outfit desperate to end a 7th straight exit at the semifinal stage of the Asian Cup and who had shaded the opening 45. That drought, meanwhile, will now extend to at least 2027, a run of 47 years.
They had the lead after just four minutes when a long throw-in from Jahanbakhsh was nodded on first by Iran’s Saeid Ezatolahi and then Qatar’s Ró-Ró before being met by an acrobatic bicycle kick by Sardar Azmoun, getting his boot to it and guiding it beyond Barsham.
The deafening noise inside showed just what it meant to the Iranian fans, just what was at stake in the game. And just in case it wasn’t apparent from that, the furious tempo the game quickly settled into gave a clear demonstration.
Caution was thrown to the wind, two sides desperate to reach the final hurling everything they could at each other.
Just moments after Azmoun’s strike, with the Iranian fans were still celebrating, Afif was already finding space and driving in a right-footed effort held by Beiranvand — the save adding an extra layer of noise to the cacophonous drums and cheering coming from behind the goals.
Further golden chances for Iran followed and on another night, they probably would have gone 2-0 up. But Afif, who was involved in what felt like almost every promising move forward his side made, then made his mark: cutting the ball back for Jassem atop the Iranian penalty area, with the resulting shot taking a wicked deflection off Ezatolahi and looping away from Beiranvand.
Iran were furious. And not just because they’d seen their lead evaporate
Moments prior, a long clearance from Beiranvand had sat up for Mehdi Taremi, only for the attacker to be brought down by a desperate last-ditch challenge. The Iranians wanted a penalty, only for their appeals to fall on the deaf ears of the referee and VAR review as the Qataris grabbed their leveller.
And therein lies one of the other major talking points from the contest, a predictable one, because officiating was inevitably going to become a flashpoint on Wednesday, especially after Iran raised complaints surrounding the appointment of Ahmad Al Ali before the game.
Iran coach Amir Ghalenoei and his staff were awaiting the official and his team as they looked to head down the tunnel at the halftime break, moments after their side had appeals for a handball penalty on Lucas Mendes waved away and Jahanbakhsh was denied one final chance to hurl in a long throw.
Before all this, Qatar had found their second and the lead. And inevitably, it came through Afif.
Having come close on several occasions before then, an alert sliding challenge to win the ball back and quick ball forward by Fathi found him in a yard of space on the left side of the edge of the Iranian penalty area.
But when the next moment of contention arrived, just seconds into the second stanza, it was to the favour of Ghalenoei’s outfit, Fathi getting his arms in front of his face as Ezatolahi sent in a shot and a VAR review determined that this constituted a handball, with Jahanbakhsh burying the resulting penalty.
With the wind at their backs, the following exchanges were controlled by the Iranians.
Waves of attacks were coming and it felt like it was only a matter of time before they found another way through. Ghalenoei, after apologising to the Iranian people, said it was one of the best second halves his side had produced in his tenure. He then went on to declare Wednesday one of the worst days of his life.
But Qatar survived and found its way back into things.
A deflected shot from outside the penalty area by substitute Abdulaziz Hatem went straight to Almoez, who took advantage of his gift by turning and firing the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
At first glance, he appeared to have been comfortably offside, but neither the assistant referee’s flag nor the VAR called the goal back. It would stand. Qatar led.
When VAR intervened to upgrade what had initially been a yellow card for Shoja’ Khalilzadeh on Afif and upgraded it to a red, one would have been forgiven for thinking Iran were done and yet still they came forward — forcing Qatar to desperately defend their one-goal margin.
Yet when the dust settled, it was a lead they maintained — the final whistle finally immediately drowned out by the explosion of noise from the home fans into their second straight final.