LUSAIL: Asian Cup hosts Qatar kicked off their title defence with a 3-0 win over Lebanon in the tournament opener with two goals from playmaker Akram Afif and another from Almoez Ali.

Following a glitzy opening ceremony with Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani also in attendance at the Lusail Stadium, Afif put on a show of his own to kickstart their campaign with three valuable points in the bag.

“Akram was named the most valuable player of the match, he’s a very high-quality player and he deserves that,” Qatar coach Marquez Lopez told reporters.

“I was very happy with the match and how we delivered on our own pitch, the players gave 200% of what was required.”

Qatar scored early through the 2019 tournament’s top scorer Ali and the crowd went ballistic when he found the net, but the euphoria died down quickly when everyone saw the linesman’s flag up for offside.

The hosts dominated the opening stages but Lebanon slowly found their footing, with veteran skipper Hassan Maatouk firing a warning shot straight at Qatar goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham.

Afif was the busiest player in the final third, staying two steps ahead of the Lebanon defence by finding space and creating plenty of chances while the playmaker also saw a header graze the crossbar on its way over.

The Al-Sadd player’s persistence finally paid off at the stroke of halftime when Ali trapped the ball inside the box, saw an unmarked Afif arrive and backed away for his 27-year-old strike partner to fire home as the crowd roared back into life.

“We conceded the first goal at the worst time… we played a big team with experience and they punished all our mistakes, Lebanon coach Miodrag Radulovic said.

“Akram Afif is one of the best players in Asia, he can even play in Europe. He’s a leader of this team and with his quality he decided the game tonight.”

Ali scored nine goals in the 2019 tournament and he picked up where he left off when he doubled Qatar’s lead 11 minutes after the restart, heading home a delightful cross from Mohammed Waad on the flank.

The goal put a spring in Qatar’s step and they routinely cut through Lebanon’s defence.

Meanwhile, their less illustrious opponents struggled to consistently string together passes when they ventured into Qatar’s half.

Afif sealed the victory in stoppage time when he pounced on a botched clearance and easily accelerated past a tiring Lebanon defence before applying a calm finish to make it 3-0.

The victory may go a long way in giving the home fans some solace after Qatar lost all three World Cup group games in 2022, but Afif said they have already banished those demons from 13 months ago.

“We are proud we played in the World Cup… We played well but we’ve forgotten about the World Cup and even 2019,” he said.

“It’s a new day, every day is a chance to compete to lift the cup.”

China play Tajikistan in the other Group A game on Saturday.

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