BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Tajikistan have reached the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship semi-finals, after defeating DPR Korea 4-2 on penalties in their quarter- final match on Sunday. The match at the Petaling Jaya City Council had ended tied at 1-1, through goals by Rustam Soirov (14') and Ri Hun (70').
Both teams, having had four days of rest, fielded relatively unchanged starting line-ups. DPR Korea head coach Pak Jong Chol started with the same first eleven who beat Oman 3-1 in their final Group B match, while Tajikistan boss Zaynidin Rakhimov benched two midfielders; Ozodbek Panzhiev and Sunatullo Ismoilov for Rustam and Amadoni Kamolov.
In the first 10 minutes DPR Korea pinned their Central Asian opponents in their own half; and the Tajikistan back-three had their hands full trying to contain the pressure.
Surprisingly, against the run of play, it was the Tajiks who opened the scoring, with the starting line-up changes combining to draw first blood. Receiving an accurate overhead pass from Amadoni just outside of the Korean penalty box behind the defensive line, Rustam sped into the box, and left with only the onrushing custodian Ri Kyong Won to beat, the forward smashed it home. It was their first attempt at goal in the encounter.
At the half hour mark, Islom Zairov attempted to score from a free kick taken just outside the box, and although he did enough to clear the wall, his attempt went wide. Up until this point, it was Zaynidin's charges who were more clinical in front of the goal, despite the fact Jong Chol's boys had more of the possession.
Tajikistan grew more comfortable playing a defensive game, sitting deep to absorb their opponents' forays, and the first half ended with them leading the clash.
No change was made by either side at the start of the second half.
In the 63rd minute the Koreans appeared to have found an equaliser, but the assistant referee had raised his flag for offside without any hesitation.
But nothing would stop them from finding the equaliser, seven minutes later. Right back Hun smashed the ball from 30 metres out, from the right, and the ball sailed past Mukhriddin into the top far corner, almost tearing a hole in the net.
Zairov Islom almost retook the lead for Tajikistan, but his 82nd low shot ended up on the wrong side of the far post.
He struck first time from the Korean six-yard box two minutes from the end of 90 minutes after he was fed a short cross from the right, but Kyong Won palmed the ball over the crossbar and out.
The full 90 minutes ended tied at 1-1, and as no extra time is played in the tournament, penalty shootout was required.
Mukhriddin emerged as his team's hero in the shootout, saving DPR Korea's second and third kick, and almost keeping out the fourth as well. But he did enough, and his outfield teammates held their nerves to not miss from the spot.
Tajikistan are now in the semis, and will take part in the 2019 U-17 World Cup; an amazing achievement for a side who had earlier opened their campaign with a 6-2 pummeling by hosts Malaysia.
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