ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Almoez Ali scored with a spectacular overhead kick for a record ninth goal of the Asian Cup to set Qatar on their way to a first continental title with a stunning 3-1 win over four-times champions Japan on Friday.
Ali’s early goal took him past Ali Daei’s 1996 tally and, combined with a 27th-minute strike from Abdulaziz Hatem and a late Akram Afif penalty, helped the Qataris make an emphatic statement ahead of their hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
Sudan-born Ali’s record goal came after a protest by the host United Emirates FA into his eligibility to represent Qatar was dismissed by the Asian Football Confederation only a few hours before kickoff.
Japan finally found a way through a Qatar defense that had not conceded in six previous matches when Takumi Minamino scored in the 69th minute but the penalty condemned the Samurai Blue to their first defeat in an Asian Cup final.
The victory was celebrated wildly by thousands of Omanis who had turned out to support Qatar in the absence of their own fans, who were unable to travel because of a deep political rift with the UAE.
“Today we made history for our country, we need to be very proud about our achievement,” said Qatar coach Felix Sanchez.
“This is one step more towards be ready for 2022 and represent Qatar as a very competitive team at the World Cup.”
Japan, chasing a record-extending fifth title, started the brighter but it was the Qataris who drew first blood through the prolific Ali, who was later named Player of the Tournament.
Afif has set up most of Ali’s goals in the UAE and he was again the provider in the 12th minute with a cross that found the striker in space with his back to goal close to the penalty spot.
There was still plenty of work to do but Ali took a touch off each foot to tee up the ball before angling it past Shuichi Gonda into the corner of the net with a bicycle kick.
The Afif-Ali combination nearly struck again a minute later but the Qataris did not have to wait long to double their lead.
Hatem, who scored the winner against South Korea in the quarter-finals, summoned up another magnificent strike, cutting in from the right before curling the ball past the helpless Gonda into the top left-hand corner.
The Japanese, who had weathered a first-half storm before beating Iran in the semi-finals, kept their composure but were simply unable to break through the compact lines of Qatar’s defense.
Japan skipper Maya Yoshida clashed heads with Boualem Khoukhi on the hour mark, resulting in the big Qatari defender being carried off on a stretcher.
The Qatar defense looked less assured without him and Japan took full advantage when Yuya Osako played in Minamino and the winger chipped the ball over advancing goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb.
Japan poured forward looking for an equalizer but, after reference to VAR, Yoshida was adjudged to have blocked Abdelkarim Hassan’s header with his hand in the 80th minute and Afif calmly sent Gonda the wrong way from the spot.
“Our goal was to win the title, and so I’m disappointed and regretful we could not bring the Cup home to the Japanese people,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said.
“I always think the winning team is better so in that sense they were.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond