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Doha: Iran moved into the quarter-finals of the AFC U23 Championship as Mohammed Khakpour’s team notched up a 3-2 win over China on Monday to secure second place in Group A and set-up a quarter-final meeting with Japan.

Arsalan Motahhari gave the Iranians the lead before Chang Feiya levelled seconds later. Ehsan Pahlavan restored his side’s lead in a frantic three-minute spell late in the first half before Mahdi Torabi’s free kick just after the break extended Iran’s advantage, although a penalty by Liao Lisheng caused some late jitters.

“We were under a lot of pressure in our country, back in Iran, and we had to make lots of changes because we knew we would go on in this tournament and we would have to save some of our players,” said Khakpour.

“The Chinese were playing fair and square and they gave us a good challenge, even though they had lost two games and they knew they weren’t going through. China were hard but fair and I appreciate their efforts.

“My players were giving their best in this game and I appreciate that. I’m very proud to have players like this and hopefully in the next game we will have the same result.”

A nondescript opening half hour gave way to a flurry of activity and goals as the opening period came to a close, with the action moving freely from one end of the pitch to the other.

Zhang Yuning almost managed to redirect Mi Haolun’s 36th minute free kick into the goal, only to find the arms of Iran goalkeeper Mohammedreza Akhbari with his effort on the slide.

Less than a minute later, Pahlavan’s attempt suffered a similar fate after his one-two with Torabi unlocked the Chinese defence.

In their next attack, however, Iran took the lead. Reza Aliyari stormed down the left wing before cutting in a low cross that Chinese goalkeeper Zhang Yinuo fumbled and Motahhari poked over the line.

Iran’s lead lasted less than a minute thanks to a moment of individual brilliance from Chang Feiya, who seared down the right wing before cutting inside, evading two defenders and then beating Akhbari with a deflected shot.

The response from Khakpour’s team was instantaneous, with Pahlavan receiving the ball on the edge of the Chinese penalty area before stroking a right foot shot beyond Zhang Yinuo and into the bottom corner.

Three minutes after the restart, the Iranians looked to have killed off any threat that the Chinese might pull level again when Torabi scored with a beautiful curling free kick from 25 yards out that clipped the underside of the bar before crossing the line.

China reduced the deficit in the 69th minute when second-half substitute Liao Lisheng struck from the penalty spot after Mi Haolun was brought down in the area by Ali Abdollahzadeh, but it was not enough to kick start a comeback for Fu Bo’s team and Iran advanced to the last eight.

“Before the match we knew we still had a chance to make it into the knockout stage, but as we saw in the game the Iranian team were tougher than us,” said Fu.

“But the players didn’t give up, they still fought to stay in the championship and I really appreciate that.

“We created this team in 2013 with the plan to fight for this championship, but the result isn’t satisfying. However, the players still need to go a long way and fight for their dreams in the future.”

Photo: AFP

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