Qatar surprises Paraguay with 2-2 draw in Copa America debut

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              Qatar players celebrate their side's second goal against Paraguay, scored by Boualem Khoukhi, during a Copa America Group B soccer match at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, June 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Qatar refused to panic as it recovered from a two-goal deficit to draw 2-2 with Paraguay in its Copa America debut on Sunday.

The Asian champions could have done even better at the Maracana but Paraguay goalkeeper Gatito Fernandez performed outstandingly in the first half of the match.

Qatar had a terrible start, falling behind in the first four minutes. Miguel Almiron took a free kick from the left edge of the box and Fabian Balbuena nodded the ball onto the right hand of Pedro Miguel. Veteran Oscar Cardozo scored from the resulting penalty to make it 1-0 to the South Americans.

But Qatar, amid its preparations for the 2022 World Cup, held on and dominated ball possession as its Spanish coach Felix Sanchez desired. At halftime, the Qataris had some 60% of possession against Paraguay, a team that has failed to qualify for the last two World Cups and is trying to rebuild.

At the final whistle the Qataris had 56% possession.

At the beginning of the second half, Paraguay replaced Hernan Perez with Derlis Gonzalez, a change that had a quick impact. After 52 minutes, Gonzalez assisted Cardozo with a low cross, but the goal was disallowed by video review. In the 56th, Gonzalez fired in a long-range shot to the left of Qatar’s Saad Alsheeb to make it 2-0.

Qatar did not feel intimidated, instead taking inspiration from the iconic 87,000-seat stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The 20,000 fans mostly supported Qatar.

The reward came after 68 minutes when Almoez Ali received the ball on the left edge of the box, moved toward the center and sent a powerful shot past Fernandez.

At 77 minutes, Qatar made it 2-2 after a series of passes reached Boualem Khoukhi. Fernandez almost blocked the shot.

“Our team reacted well. The boys believed all the time that they could regroup,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t start well in either half, we conceded goals too quickly in the first half. In the end it was a fair result.”

Paraguay coach Eduardo Berizzo said he was impressed with Qatar’s quality.

“They are very good indeed,” Berizzo said. “But for us (the draw) was a punishment.”

Colombia leads Group B with three points. Qatar and Paraguay are level on one point, Argentina has zero.

Qatar next faces Colombia in Sao Paulo, and Paraguay takes on Argentina in Belo Horizonte.