Heartbreak for UAE as Tajikistan clinch Asian Cup quarter-final spot in penalty shootout

Paulo Bento’s team put up valiant fight in absence of Ali Mabkhout

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The recriminations would begin even before the UAE had rumbled out of Al Rayyan, their early departure from Doha decided.

Asian Cup semi-finalists in the past two editions – and runners-up in 1996 – they were outdone by tournament debutants on Sunday night, Tajikistan’s stirring story in Qatar continuing into the last eight.

Paulo Bento’s decision to banish Ali Mabkhout will form the principal point of the debrief, but at the Khalifa International Stadium the former Portugal international would be left to rue the uncertainty of a penalty shootout.

In the end, Tajikistan displayed remarkable resolve to seal a second successive victory, days after their first in Asian Cup history.

A 5-3 win on spot-kicks came after Petar Segrt’s indefatigable side were through in normal time and then pegged back deep in nearly the very last moment, when Khalifa Al Hammadi flicked home from a free-kick in the 95th minute to cancel out Vakhdat Khanonov’s first-half header.

But Tajikistan somehow conjured another mighty effort, goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov saving Caio Canedo’s spot-kick and Alisher Shukurov sending the Central Asians into a quarter-final against either Iraq or Jordan. Tajikistan were flawless when it really mattered.

The UAE were sent home. Where do they go from here? They exited without Mabkhout for the last-16 tie, the national team's star striker an unused substitute through the opening two group games and, from then, not even included in the matchday squad.

Questioned on Saturday about what’s been going on with the UAE’s record scorer, Bento spoke simply of punishing anyone who did not display the desired commitment. It spoke volumes.

The seriousness of the issue has been exacerbated, too, by Sultan Adil’s unavailability. Preferred to Mabkhout against Hong Kong and Palestine, in which he scored in both, the teenager sat out his second match on the bounce, through injury.

Oh, how the UAE could have done with either on Sunday. They did start well, Fabio De Lima’s free-kick pushed away by Yatimov and Canedo blazing over from Zayed Sultan’s pull-back.

Yet the UAE surrendered momentum for a period from 15 minutes and it proved costly. Abdullah Ramadan, their tempo-setter, pulled his hamstring, ending his evening just as the encounter was warming.

Then, almost right on the half hour, the UAE’s night got worse: Khanonov outjumped Khalid Al Hashemi and Canedo and directed his downward header inside the far post. Scrambling across his goalline, Khalid Essa got fingertips to the ball. For his troubles, he clattered the upright. The UAE captain had to be checked over by his backroom staff before being allowed to continue.

To their credit, though, the UAE weathered not quite a Tajikistan storm but a brief bluster, to finish the half strong. Sultan volleyed straight at Yatimov; Canedo flicked De Lima’s corner the wrong side of the woodwork.

Also, the UAE will maybe feel aggrieved they didn’t get a penalty in stoppage time. However, VAR deemed there was not enough of an infringement after the ball had struck Parvizdzhon Umarbayev’s hand at close range.

In the second half, Alisher Dzhalilov twice forced Essa into action, the second after he had been put through, and soon after Bader Nader cleared from his goalline. With 20 minutes remaining, Dzhalilov somehow spurned another opportunity, the most presentable of all.

Arriving at the back post, and with the UAE goal gaping, he sliced the centre wide. Not long after, substitute Nuriddin Khamrokulov headed wide a corner when he seemed certain to score. At the other end, Yahya Al Ghassani curled an injury-time shot onto the Tajikistan post.

Then the UAE thought they had salvaged it. In the fifth minute of the seven allotted for injury-time, Ali Saleh whipped in a wicked free-kick and Al Hammadi glanced home the equaliser.

The UAE bench raced on to the pitch to pile on the scorer. Bento, maybe sensing a personal reprieve, kicked out at a stack of water bottles.

Yet Tajikistan would not be denied. What an effort they summoned. Triumphing in the most dramatic of circumstances, they celebrated like the Asian Cup was theirs. On one night at least, it seemed so.

Updated: January 28, 2024, 11:02 PM