Following a catastrophic campaign in which Iraq were unable to mount any serious challange for qualification, it was left for Basim Qasim to pick up the pieces and start planning from square one. The new manager was quick to make his mark on the new squad by bringing in fresh talent and benching senior players such as Mohanned Abdul-Raheem. In came Aymen Hussain, Hussain Ali and Mazin Fayad, whilst Mohammed Kassid and Walid Salim earned recalls. Bizarrely enough, there was no room for Osama Rashid nor Brwa Nouri, despite early club successes this season.
The Thailand fixture started off well, with Iraq dominating the game. Justin Meram and Ali Adnan were particularly impressive down the left channel, with the opposition unable to keep up with Iraq’s pace. Hussain Ali, new to the setup, added much needed balance to the side, which previous options such as Ali Hosni and Sherko Kareem failed to provide down the right side. Iraq looked to be edging towards the lead early on and were duly rewarded when a Justin Meram strike from distance nestle into the bottom corner of the goal. The MLS star’s goal against Thailand came nearly a year since his previous appearance for the national team and marked his third goal against the opposition. With Ahmed Yasin missing due to ongoing issues with the ever-pathetic Iraqi FA, it was Justin Meram who shone as Iraq’s talisman in both fixtures. His ability to beat players and play intricate passes in the final third simply highlighted how much Iraq have missed him over the course of this campaign.
The second half saw Iraq settle back into their half and take their foot off the burner, which nearly cost them the win. A silly mistake from Waleed Salim resulted in Ahmed Ibrahim deflecting a drilled cross into his own net. Heads sunk and it appeared that the game was destined for a draw. Fortunately, a soft refereeing decision saw a late penalty awarded to Iraq after Aymen Hussain was pulled down in the opposition box. Up stepped Saad Abdulamir to coolly slot away the winner from 12 yards.
Overall, it was a good performance for Basim Qasim to build on. Iraq started the Thailand fixture really well and were noticeable sharper in their passing game throughout. Hardly ever did we see the ball being lumped up the field towards the striker, which could be tempting given the height of Aymen hussain. Rather, focus was on short, quick passes and fast movements up the field. It was fantastic to see given the poor quality of football we’ve been forced to endure over recent years. Moreover, to see such drastic changes implemented in such a short period of time by Basim Qasim, it is difficult not to feel excited by the whole new setup.
Iraq picked up where they left off against UAE. Both teams were missing key players but Basim Qasim set up to win the game right from the off, which is something he should be credited for. Saad Abdulamir once again dominated the game from the middle, whilst Bashar and Hussain Ali caused havoc in the opposition halves with runs from deep. However, it was Justin Meram who stole the show yet again. The UAE backline were constantly on the back foot as they tried to read Justin’s trickery. Indeed, Justin was involved in the build up to Iraq’s goal, with his pass feeding in Walid Salim, whose cross was hammered in by Aymen Hussain. It was a fantastic header and a proper striker’s finish. Iraq continued to press for the first half but failed to grab a second. A lack of cutting edge in front of goal fortunately didn’t cost us the points but may have done on another day against stronger opposition.
Credit must be given to the side for their defensive display during the 90 minutes. Whenever UAE tried to press high, the defence simply played the ball out in a calm and calculated manner. Rebin Sulaka formed a solid partnership alongside Ahmed Ibrahim. Again, crisp and short passes saw the Iraqi side completely unrecognisable from the travesty of yesteryear, where the first sign of pressure saw the ball hoofed out and possession lost needlessly. The foundations of what Basim Qasim was creating was there to see against Thailand and would’ve been a success had Walid Salim’s mistake not cost us a goal. Rather, it was against UAE where the results finally shone through.
Additionally, the manager must also be credit for his bravery in dropping Mohanned and giving Aymen Hussain an opportunity to lead the attack. The youngster did well over the two fixtures and will only go on to improve based on the evidence witness recently. His height and strength are valuable assets to have in Asian football and he will be used as a target man to link up with players like Justin, Ahmed Yasin and Ali Hosni outside the box. He is far from the finished article but it is delightful to see the manager taking such a risk with him.
Two wins on the trot and a series of fantastic performances from a large number of players. The optimist in me might argue that our luck has finally started to turn and that we’ve finally found a system that works for us. However, the pessimist in me would argue that both games were essentially friendlies given that none of the sides had a realistic chance of qualifying. Instead, judgement should be reserved for stronger opposition, when the pressure is on the players to perform.
Now that the campaign is finally over, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Iraqi football. Attention now must turn towards the Gulf Cup in December, although this may change depending on political tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.