BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Tajikistan underwent one of the best turnarounds in the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship, after reaching the tournament semi-finals and qualifying for the 2019 U-17 World Cup, following their penalty shootout win over DPR Korea in their quarter-final encounter on Sunday.
Having started the group stage with a 6-2 drubbing to hosts Malaysia, they slowly recovered; holding Japan to a 0-0 draw, before edging Thailand 2-1 in a must-win encounter to book their place in the quarter-final stage.
Against the Koreans they opened the scoring in the 14th minute through Rustam Soirov's strike, and after Ri Hun equalised in the 69th minute, held fast to force the game to be decided by penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Mukhriddin Khasanov then emerged as their hero, saving two spot kicks to help them advance.
Speaking in the post-match press conference, a clearly-elated Tajikistan head coach Zaynidin Rakhimov remarked that the whole country is celebrating the success of reaching the U-17 World Cup for the second time in their history, while the squad had just been congratulated by the country's president himself.
"After the match just now I received a call from the Tajikistan Football Federation president (Rustam Emomali) congratulating our success, and he added that the country's president Emomali Rahmon, his father, has also congratulated us.
"This success is dedicated to my country, and everyone in my city Dushanbe, and the whole country, is celebrating at this moment.
"We had earlier targeted to reach the quarter-finals, but now God has helped us go beyond it and reach the World Cup. So why not go even farther? Before the match I had joked with the Japanese head coach that we might play them in the final, so that may just happen!" he said through an interpreter.
In the semis, Tajikistan will meet the winner of the quarter-final encounter between South Korea and India on Thursday, 8.45 pm Malaysian time.
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Tajikistan had a rough start to their 2018 AFC U-16 Championship campaign, but completed a stunning turnaround to defeat DPR Korea on penalties in the quarter-finals, to reach the semis and the 2019 U-17 World Cup. Tajikistan bermula longlai dalam Kejohanan AFC B-16 2018, tetapi bangkit dan mara ke peringkat separuh akhir untuk layak ke Piala Dunia B-17 2019, selepas menumpaskan Korea Utara menerusi sepakan penalti di peringkat suku akhir!