Asian Cup Final Review: Qatar reclaim their crown
The 2023 Asian Cup drew to a memorable close as the hosts and defending champions Qatar took on first-time finalists Jordan in a title showdown few would have predicted going into the tournament. At the end of another thrilling fixture, Jordan just about fell short as the Maroons became the first team to defend this title for twenty years.
By Neel Shelat
🇯🇴 Jordan 1-3 Qatar 🇶🇦
Just over a year after the incredible World Cup final between Argentina and France, the Lusail Stadium hosted another international final as Jordan and Qatar faced off to decide the champion of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Having never even reached the semi-finals of the tournament in the past, no one could have expected Jordan to get so far, so this was surely the biggest night in the nation’s footballing history. On the road to the final, they had put together some convincing displays and showed no nerves even against giants such as South Korea.
Despite being the defending champions, Qatar’s chances were not considered great either. There were various factors behind that, including their terrible World Cup campaign as well as coaching changes as Carlos Queiroz was sacked and replaced by Tintín Márquez just a month before the tournament. In hindsight, that has proven to be a great call because the Spaniard’s tactical flexibility and constant tweaking enabled his side to get the better of all those who stood in their way.
Unlike many of his countrymen, Márquez is not someone obsessed with controlling matches. With Qatar, he was willing to let games stretch into end-to-end affairs, trusting the quality of his attacking stars to make the difference. Jordan also thrived in transition thanks to their attacking firepower, so despite this being a final, neither side set out to make it a cagey affair.
The hosts knew that the biggest threat to their defence would be Musa Al-Taamari, which is why they often doubled or even tripled up on him. Their aim was to restrict him out wide, and they also brought their star man Akram Afif across to serve as a counterattacking outlet on that side.
About 20 minutes in, that tactic yielded its first big reward. Afif burst past a defender and entered the box before being clipped from behind, earning a spot-kick. Of course, he was the one who stepped up to take it and converted coolly, celebrating with a card trick befitting the magician that he is.
In previous matches, Qatar had been guilty of falling back too much after taking the lead, so fans might have feared they would do that again in the big one. There was no such sign in the first half, but the second half started to go that way as Jordan finally seemed to settle in the match and began attacking with more intensity and consistency. After spurning a few presentable opportunities, they equalised just past the hour mark after a wonderful take and finish by Yazan Al-Naimat.
The game could have gone anyway then, but a piece of very naive defending in Jordan’s box gifted Qatar a penalty just five minutes later. Afif stepped up yet again and put it in the same corner to restore his side’s advantage as well as become the outright top scorer at the tournament. He went on to complete his hat-trick by winning and converting another spot-kick just as stoppage time began, putting the result beyond doubt.
With that, Qatar became the first team to defend the title on home soil since 1976. It would still be tough to call them the best team in Asia all things considered, but their cohesiveness and quality clearly seem to be the right mix for success in the continental tournament. Jordan will be bitterly disappointed after falling at the final hurdle, but they should be very proud of a historic campaign as well.
By all metrics, this was one of the great Asian Cups.
The quality of the matches was excellent, both from a technical and entertainment standpoint. Minnows such as debutantes Tajikistan, Palestine, and Jordan staged many an upset by playing some fantastic well-drilled football, giants such as Japan and South Korea struggled, and we were treated to late drama by the truckloads in the knockouts.
The organisation was excellent as well, enabling the attendance record to be smashed as 1.5 million fans attended the matches across nine stadiums. Of course, the hosts were very well-supported, but so were nearby nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Uzbekistan. The large diaspora populations in Qatar from places such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia ensured their teams received great support as well.
Most of all, though, this tournament showed that Asian football can be great in itself. As this tournament’s schedule clashed with the AFCON, most international English language media attention was focused on the Ivory Coast, but that did not stop those following the Asian Cup from all over the world from having a great time. The final – which featured just one Europe-based player – showed that mixing with the European elite is not a requirement to succeed in Asia, contrary to what the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann would have you believe.
The Most Valuable Player of the tournament is a prime example of that. Akram Afif’s performances and output at this tournament cemented his status as one of the greatest to play the game in Asia in recent history. After being the top creator in Qatar’s 2019 triumph, he now decided to take on the role of top scorer and more than delivered with eight goals. The best thing about Afif is his consistency as he rises and deliveries regardless of the occasion, be it a routine league fixture on a Thursday evening in Al Wakrah or an Asian Cup final at home. Five man-of-the-match performances in six starts this tournament says it all.
Those not following Asian football might not know it, but we have witnessed a truly great and memorable Asian Cup this year in Qatar.
(Images from IMAGO)
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