A tough start to his international career saw Columbus Crew’s Justin Meram on the brink of the first team for Iraq. His form for his club has been excellent, with him scoring regularly and putting in match-winning performances. Sadly, that form was absent during the Asian Cup 2015, where he featured frequently but failed to make his mark. However, sixteen games into his international career and things are finally starting to click for the 26 year old.
As an expat, there has been enormous pressure on the U.S-based footballer to hit the ground running for Iraq, which is undoubtedly a tough task given his lack of gelling in time with the squad. Delays with his paperwork meant his inclusion to the Asian Cup squad last January was abrupt and last minute. Preparation for such an enormous tournament requires time for the player to settle in, understand the manager’s philosophy and the team tactics, as was breaking the obvious language barrier that existed with his new Arabic speaking teammates. Forcing a player into a squad with minimal physical and mental preparation was inevitably going to result in them having a difficult time producing the level of football they frequently offer at club level.
Justin once again found himself on the bench in Iraq’s opening qualifier game against Chinese Taipei, formerly Taiwan. Having come on as a substitute with Iraq leading by three, the pressure surrounding him seemed to be absent. The player was involved right from the off and made his presence known. On the 90th minute, captain Younis Mahmoud won himself a penalty but kindly offered Justin the ball to break his duck and grab his first international goal. The pressure was on Justin to convert regardless of the scoreline, and the attacking midfielder did just that. Gracefully accepting the ball, Justin slotted in cooly from the spot as Iraq finished 5-1 winners.
A tougher task followed when Thailand hosted Iraq in a packed out Rajamangala Stadium. Thailand were top of the group but Iraq were sure favourites after a convincing win the match prior. Now donning the number seven shirt, Justin Meram featured in the starting XI, playing behind lone-striker Younis Mahmoud. The game begun with Iraq on the attack but sloppy finishing meant that chances remained unconverted. On the 33rd minute, the ball dropped to Justin around the halfway line, who did well to control it and carry it into space before powering a shot past the ‘keeper, who was left rooted. It was a terrific goal, albeit the result of poor defending. Minutes later, Justin was involved again as he won the ball back on the nearside and played it to Saad Abdul-Amir, who spearheaded another attack. The midfielder continued to drift either side of the pitch to find space and utilised it efficiently throughout the first 75 minutes, until the game turned on its head and Iraq were pegged back to 2-2 after a disastrous defensive performance.
No doubt a disappointing result, but there was a lot of promise shown by Meram, who is starting to find form with the national side. Playing behind the striker, or out wide in his natural position, his ability to beat a man and shoot from distance may be a crucial factor in Iraq’s World Cup Qualifying hopes. As highlighted against Thailand, the player’s movement makes it extremely tough to defend against as he drops to find the small pockets of space between the midfielders and defence. Defenders are left to risk pushing up and exposing their centre back partner, or face being taken on against a notoriously talented dribbler – this makes it almost impossible to man mark him. Crucially, Meram’s presence will create competition for positions with Ahmed Yasin, Ali Adnan, Amjad Khalaf and Humam Tariq all fighting for a starting spot. There is a lot more to be expected from the 26 year old, who is finally starting to make the Iraqi shirt his.