MELBOURNE (AFP) – Uzbekistan reached the Asian Cup quarter-finals after beating Saudi Arabia 3-1 in a nail-biter on Sunday, a bullet header from Vokhid Shodiev helping them over the line.
The substitute’s dramatic winner, which came on 70 minutes, averted a controversial denouement after Saudi Arabia had been awarded a soft penalty to cancel out an early strike from two-goal hero Sardor Rashidov.
Uzbekistan, who reached the semi-finals of the last Asian Cup in 2011, will face South Korea in the last eight on Thursday, while three-times champions Saudi Arabia crash out at the group stage — just as they did four years ago.
“I can’t say this is a big tragedy,” said Saudi caretaker coach Cosmin Olaroiu, pressed to explain the Gulf side’s recent fall from grace. “It is a big disappointment, but it’s too much to call it a tragedy.
“Saudi Arabia will have to make changes and start building something solid for the future,” added the Romanian manager of Dubai-based Al Ahli, hired on a part-time basis to lead the side through the Asian Cup.
“We conceded a very silly goal after one minute and that forced us to play a different way. Uzbekistan fought hard and deserved to go through.”
Tempers flared on the touchline after Rashidov killed off the game with a lethal finish 11 minutes from time in Melbourne, as over-exuberant Uzbek substitutes danced for joy in front of the Saudi bench.
Saudi Arabia had briefly looked to be heading for the draw they needed to join Group B winners China in the knockout stage after Australian referee Ben Williams gifted them a penalty which Mohammed Al Sahlawi converted on the hour-mark.
The official, blasted by Iran coach Carlos Queiroz earlier in the tournament, pointed to the spot after adjudging that Vitaliy Denisov had brought down striker Naif Hazazi.
Replays suggested that Hazazi had slumped to the turf without encouragement from Denisov, who looked to the heavens in anguish as the net bulged.
Moments later Williams, who refereed at last year’s World Cup, ruled out an Uzbekistan goal for another phantom foul, sparking fury among the players in white.
Uzbek coach Mirdjalal Kasimov refused to be drawn on the penalty decision or the disallowed goal, perhaps wisely after Queiroz and Japan playmaker Keisuke Honda were both hit with fines for criticising referees.
“I didn’t see it,” he said of the penalty. “But it might have been a mistake. The Saudi players were diving all game. They kept diving and appealing for penalties — the referee really should have booked them.
“The more they dived, the more pressure they put the referee under and he started whistling in their favour.”
Rashidov opened the scoring inside two minutes, capitalising on bumbling Saudi defending to score with a daisy-cutter which squeezed through the legs of goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah.
But it was Shodiev who changed the mo-mentum, climbing superbly to head home a Shavkatjon Mulladjanov cross before racing off to the corner flag to celebrate wildly. Rashi-dov’s cool finish after being sent clear through iced the game, which ended in jubilation, tears and a visit from a flock of seagulls.