Kuala Lumpur: The AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 proved to be yet another seminal moment in the young career of Qatar striker Almoez Ali.
Having arrived in the United Arab Emirates with an already burgeoning reputation, the livewire forward went on to find the net a record nine times – the last of which was a particularly magical moment in the final – and be named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
That accolade, along with the award for finishing as top goalscorer, was roundly applauded, a nod to Ali’s prowess following a campaign which saw him shine brightly yet again for Felix Sanchez’s charges as they claimed Qatar’s first-ever AFC Asian Cup crown.
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As the world watched on – and just over three weeks before his balletic strike in the title decider – Ali’s triumphant march to success began courtesy of a crucial 79th minute effort against Lebanon in Qatar’s opening Group E encounter.
In his next outing, Ali etched himself into the AFC Asian Cup record books by breaching DPR Korea’s defence no less than four times to equal the record for the most goals registered by a player in a single match at the Continent’s premier competition.
Clearly on a roll, five was to become seven for the Al Duhail SC hotshot when a wonderfully composed finish coupled with a neat close-range header helped guide his country to a 2-0 win over regional rivals Saudi Arabia and top spot in the group standings.
Within the space of nine days, Ali, who had topped the goalscoring charts at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship some 12 months earlier, had reinforced his status as one of Asia’s leading lights, a player to be feared and revered in equal measure. A player to be stopped.
“Almoez is a fantastic player, he's a pleasure to coach," Sanchez would later say of his striker.
“He's 100 percent committed, each game he gives his all, and he arrived at this tournament in the perfect moment. He works for the team.”
That train of thought was emphatically underlined in Qatar’s Round of 16 and quarter-final clashes with Iraq and Korea Republic respectively when, despite not finding himself on the scoresheet, Ali worked tirelessly as The Maroons recorded successive wins to progress through to the last four.
Despite Ali’s previous exemplary displays, his critics claimed that an inability to score in the rarefied atmosphere of AFC Asian Cup knockout matches was proof positive that he did not have what it took to truly stand tall among Asia’s elite.
In an instant Ali silenced the doubters with a superb curled effort against the UAE in a highly charged semi-final – a goal which saw him equal the record haul by a player at Asia’s premier event, one which was set by Islamic Republic of Iran legend Ali Daei when he scored eight at the 1996 edition.
It was, without doubt, also a distinct sign that there was still more to come from someone destined to leave an indelible mark on the competition. And so it proved in the final.
Facing the might of four-time winners Japan, Ali thrust himself in the spotlight yet again courtesy of a flash of genius that will live long in the memory and one which would edge the Qatari marksman past Daei’s tally.
With 12 minutes gone at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium, Ali – undaunted by the imposing presence of Japan captain Maya Yoshida – collected a pass from Akram Afif some 10 yards from goal.
Although facing the wrong way, Ali brilliantly juggled the ball twice before sending a spectacular overhead kick beyond the reach of Samurai Blue goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda. It was, in short, breathtaking.
Despite stiff Japanese resistance, Ali’s sublime effort would ultimately provide the foundation on which Qatar secured an historic 3-1 victory and, in the process, go down as the finest of the nine goals he had bagged since lining up against Lebanon.
“I expected to score goals, but I didn’t expect to score nine, I was expecting three or four. Thankfully, the team helped me score many times,” a typically modest Ali told reporters after the match.
“I would have been embarrassed as a striker if I didn’t score and I managed to score nine goals in seven games.”
Is Almoez Ali's goal against Japan the greatest in AFC Asian Cup history?
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