QATAR pulled off a spectacular Houdini act yesterday to run away with a stunning 2-1 victory over Oman and stay in contention for a place in the semi-final of the 21st Gulf Cup, writes Vijay Mruthyunjaya.
Oman can justifiably feel unlucky if not cheated in a match which they dominated from start to finish. They had the better of exchanges, better ball possession, better territorial advantage but what they sourly missed was that Midas touch and a smile from Lady Luck.
Even statistics back Oman, the second highest ranked team in the fray with a Fifa ranking of 95, in this regard as they had 16 shots at goal compared to Qatar's three and won 11 corner kicks to none for Qatar.
Man for man, Oman were distinctly superior as they passed crisply, moved up with a lot of flair and freedom and repeatedly stretched the Qatari defence thin and wide.
But when it came to give meaning to all that domination they were found wanting, be it from the left, right or down the middle.
The return of talismanic midfielder Fawzi Basheer, who did not play in the goalless draw against Bahrain in the first match, gave their attack the much needed extra edge. With the only striker Abdulaziz Al Muqbali also in good form, Oman threatened to make the breakthrough any second.
The Qataris were on the back foot right from the start and the five midfielders were time and again summoned for defensive duties rather than allowed into an attacking mode with Uruguay-born Sebastian Soria in the forefront.
Oman's Mohammed Al Farsi had a first go at the Qatari goal in the 13th minute with a shot down the centre. It had a lot of power behind it but no deviation and goalkeeper Qasim Burhan had no difficulty in averting any danger.
Ahmed Mubarak made another attempt in the 26th minute but his header was just wide of the near post. But Oman's best chance came in the 40th minute when Al Muqbali did well to latch on to a through pass but he could neither shake off his marker nor pass it on to Basheer who was charging down the middle. Cramped for space, he was forced to make a half-hearted attempt which barely tested the Qatari goalkeeper Burhan.
In between, Basheer, Juma Al Maashari and Saad Al Mukhaini also had a go at the Qatari goal but none could find a way to put their team ahead.
Traffic from the other side was slow and sporadic as Qatar barely threatened Oman goalkeeper Mazin Al Kasbi who was standing in for his more illustrious compatriot Ali Al Habsi whose club Wigan Athletic refused to release him for this tournament due to injury fears.
It was against this run of play that Qatar pulled off their first miracle in the 56th minute with the help of a huge slice of luck. Referee Mukhtar Saleh of Yemen pulled up Mohammed Al Maslami of Oman for a face-to-face collision with Qatar's Ibrahim Khalfan inside the shooting area and awarded a penalty.
Khalfan himself scored from the spot with a low shot to the left of the goal. It was his second goal of the tournament following his strike against UAE in the first match which put his team ahead before UAE rallied to win that match 3-1.
Oman continued to press forward even though a fast tiring Basheer, who also had an injury scare in the first-half, was replaced by Hussain Al Hadhri. Their perseverance paid off in the 72nd minute when referee Saleh again pointed to the dreaded spot after Qatar's Ibrahim Majid brought down Al Maashari in the penalty area. A questionable decision which cancelled out the equally questionable first one.
Substitute Al Hadhri converted the penalty to make it 1-1 with 18 minutes to go.
Qatar made a typical double substitution in the 85th minute replacing Soria with Mohammed Al Saed and Abdulaziz Hatim with Wesam Rizik. It paid off spectacularly three minutes later.
Al Saed scored off almost his first touch of the ball following an elaborately planned free-kick from over ten metres off the penalty area on the right. Hassan Al Haydos floated the ball high and deep into the far corner of the goal and Al Saed had to just stumble on to it which he did and in the process right-footed the ball into the net.
Oman, with just a point from two matches, take on UAE on Friday, while Qatar, with three points from two matches, clash with Bahrain on the same day to decide the top two teams to go into the semi-finals.