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Tajikistan daring to dream of more Asian Cup triumphs

AP PHOTO

With 9.5 million people along for the journey, Tajikistan and coach Petar Segrt are daring to dream of capping off their first Asian Cup round-of-16 appearance with an upset win over the United Arab Emirates.

Tajikistan snuck into the knock-outs for the first time with a dramatic comeback win over Lebanon in their final group game but they face a stern test against the 2019 semi-finalists at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Sunday.

It is the young nation's first major tournament since securing independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Eccentric coach Segrt and his charges are riding the wave of support from back home that accompanied Nuriddin Khamrokulov's 92nd-minute winner, which earned Tajikistan qualification ahead of China in group A.

"Nine-and-a-half million people scored the goal," Segrt said on Saturday.

"Not one. Everybody, the ambitions of all Tajikistan people were for this goal. It is not only one, we are all together.

"No-one can tell me these players are not the heroes of Tajikistan.

"We train for our dream, we will try to go for the next round.

"We can play everything or nothing because this is a game for everything and nothing.

"And believe me. Maybe we celebrate after the qualification (if we progress) like we won the Asian Cup."

Albert Einstein-lookalike Segrt has enjoyed a unique coaching journey.

The Croatian has coached Afghanistan and Maldives, and was technical director of Georgia in 2008 when war broke out with Russia over the southern Caucasus.

He has been willing to make light of his own players' exuberance, chastising them twice for breaking his glasses in celebrations.

But he's deadly serious about his team's prospects.

"We know the UAE are a good team and normally they must be better than us," he said.

"We know that. But on the field, we will love and dream and celebrate, I hope, after the game again.

"And if not, I will be the first to give UAE my hand in congratulations.

"But for 90 minutes we will fight, and also give everything and when I smile, I smile because I still love.

"The situation has changed. Now we are not any more the underdog."

For his part, UAE coach Paulo Bento wanted his charges mentally switched on to end the fairytale.

"Their motivation cannot or should not be higher than our motivation," he said.

"If we think that because they are in the competition for the first time it's a team that has less possibility to win the game than us, we are making a big mistake.

"We should have all the respect for this team."