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Night of sheer Asian Cup drama sees debutants Tajikistan advance while China hit rock bottom

Ahead of Monday’s final Group A matches at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, it might have been forgivable to think that the evening would deliver little thrill.

Qatar were already through to the round of 16 as group winners having picked up wins in their opening two outings, but the other three teams — China, Tajikistan and Lebanon — had failed to score a single goal between them.

Yet, it was almost as though they had kept it all in reserve to produce an absolute night of drama.

Each team, at a certain point in the evening, were headed to the knockout round alongside the Qataris as Group A runners-up.

But after 90 minutes of enthralling action — 106 to be more accurate, considering the clash between Tajikistan and Lebanon had a staggering 16 minutes of second-half stoppage time — there was a new name to add to the list of teams that have reached the knockout round of the Asian Cup.

On debut and largely unfancied, Tajikistan somehow managed to pull off a stunning come-from-behind 2-1 win over Lebanon — showing tremendous spirit despite having two goals ruled out by VAR for marginal-but-correct offside calls.

Coupled with Qatar beating China 1-0 courtesy of a stunning volley by Hassan Al-Haydos that will be a frontrunner for goal of the tournament, it meant that the Tajiks climbed into second place to claim a guaranteed last-16 berth.

Having wasted no time in gaining many admirers for their fearless displays at the tournament, it originally looked as though Tajikistan would not be receiving much reward for their endeavour.

They picked up just one point from their opening two matches and were headed for a second defeat and a bottom-place finish when Bassel Jradi fired Lebanon ahead with an exquisite curling effort in the 47th minute.

Luck was certainly eluding the Tajiks as they already had a goal just before halftime chalked off upon VAR review and another was soon disallowed in similar fashion nine minutes after the hour mark.

Nonetheless, all was not lost.

By that time, Lebanon were a man down after Kassem El Zein had been sent off for a dangerous challenge and the numerical deficit eventually proved pivotal.

As the momentum swung fully in their favour, Tajikistan would finally get a deserving maiden Asian Cup goal through a delightful Parzvidzhon Umarbayev freekick in the 80th minute.

And then, in the second minute of injury-time, a searching ball from the right by Ehson Panjshanbe was met by Nuriddin Khamrokulov with an inventive backward header that looped over a stranded Mostafa Matar and crept just inside the top corner.

It would prove enough to send Tajikistan through to the round of 16 and it is China who will now be hoping they somehow scrap through as one of the four best-performing third-placed teams.

Even if they do, which does seem unlikely, labelling them as “best-performing” could perhaps be a bit of a stretch given they hardly done so at the tournament.

The Chinese have failed at the group stage before, even if they did reach the quarterfinals of the last two editions.

That much is not unprecedented.

Never before have China failed to score a goal at an Asian Cup and, the fact of the matter is, they have not looked close to doing so.

It was perhaps best summed up by the fact that Qatar, having fielded a reserve XI on Monday with progress already secured, were still able to casually call upon quality off the bench in the form of Al-Haydos and Akram Afif.

Barely a minute or two after both came on after the hour mark, a clever corner by Afif to the edge of the box was met with a sumptuous first-time volley by Al-Haydos that had opposition goalkeeper Yan Junling beaten all ends up on its way to the far corner.

In contrast, China had one-time talisman Wu Lei on the bench not out of choice but desperation — with the misfiring star making way after a couple of anonymous outings.

Wu eventually came on but offered little threat, and it was ironic — and perhaps the epitome of China’s woes — that the one man that really caused Qatar problems was not even a forward.

Thrown on as an auxiliary target man in a final roll of the dice by China coach Aleksandar Janković, 23-year-old defender Jiang Shenglong actually offered a strong presence with his physicality and might even have a claim to being his team’s best player on the night despite featuring for all of five minutes.

Jiang even managed to put the ball into the back of the opposition net with a tidy finish that would have put some of his more-attacking teammates to shame, only for the strike to be ruled out as the ball had gone out of play in the build-up.

If China were somehow eke into the knockout round, they could do with more of the desire shown by Jiang yet few would likely dare claim that they would be deserving of a place in the last 16.

The same will not be said of Tajikistan, who have gotten just reward for their efforts and — as massive underdogs — will be the neutrals’ favourites heading into the next stage of the tournament.

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