The first of two friendlies, Iraq took on a second-string Argentina side that still possessed enormous quality. It was a tough game for Kalanic to start his reign as Iraqi manager, but it did not stop him from experimenting with the side, bringing in the likes of Osama, Yasin, Justin, Bashar, Mohanad Ali and Mohammed Dawood.
The game went exactly as expected, with Argentina completely dominant and Iraq struggling to put together any meaningful attacks. Despite some good football at times, the game ended 4-0 in favour of the South American side.
There were plenty of lessons to be learnt, and the game provided an excellent indicator of just how far Iraq are to that top tier of international football. It was a much humbling reality check.
Iraq’s ‘superclassico’ fixture with Saudi Arabia was a much more competitive affair, with both sides looking to attack one another. Katanec mixed things up with the starting lineup, where Ali Adnan pushed further forward and Mohammed Dawood leading the attack.
Both teams initially looked shaky at the back, with the slightest bit of pressure from the opposition resulting in an opportunity. Saudi came closest early on, where they managed to pass the ball well in the opposition half and found a way through on goal. Iraq had their own chances, with Ahmed Yasin and Mohammed Dawood each breaking forward on the counter attack but failing to capitalise on their opportunities.
Saudi generally look sharper faster and more organised than their Iraqi counterparts. This was evident when they broke on the counterattack. They did so with more rhythm and panache, where as Iraq looked much more disjointed. Ironically, despite this, Iraq came closest to scoring in the first half. Mohammed Dawood read Ahmed Yasin’s cross well but failed to slot in from two yards, with the ball skimming between his feet. Ali Adnan also came close as he cut in from the left but had his shot saved.
Playing five in the back makes sense on paper, however, having the extra man at the back offered little benefit given how poorly the defence played. Clearances were frequently rash and the centre-backs were constantly overstretched. It may be a result of them only playing together for the first time in such a formation, however, you would expect much more from Mustafa Nadhum and Sulaka. To sacrifice the attack in this manner, you would need much more from the defence.
The second half started with Ahmed Yasin once more proving to be Iraq’s main attacking outlet. He won the ball out wide, took on three players and cut in, but his tame shot failed to trouble the ‘keeper.
Iraq looked much more organised after the break too. The midfield controlled the tempo and the side pressed higher up in the opposition half, leading to numerous Saudi defensive errors. The pressure on the defence was eased as a result. Osama Rashid was key to this, with him providing exceptional cover in front of the defence. His movement provided options to the rest of the team, whereby they were able to recycle the ball through him rather than launch it forward when faces under pressure. Likewise, the additional defensive support allowed Justin and Ahmed Yasin to attack at will. It was an overall much more dominant performance than in the first half.
Iraq’s persistence paid off after 70 minutes, when Justin and Mhawi’s pressure resulted in yet another Saudi defensive error. Muhanad Ali took full advantage of the error and slotted in cooly.
It was nearly 2-0 for Iraq with ten minutes to go, when Ali Adnan’s rocket from 30 yards was just about turned over by the goalkeeper. Despite their lead, Iraq continued to dominate. It looked like a certain victory until the final minute, where a referee mistake awarded Saudi a throw in after Ali Adnan won the ball back for Iraq. Saudi were quick to attack, and they threw everyone forward. They were rewarded with a last minute equaliser as a result. Perhaps Iraq’s goalkeeper could have done better, but that’s being harsh on Mohammed Hameed.
It was a superb match overall and Iraq were unlucky not to secure a win. However, the performance was key and Iraq certainly showed they’ve made progress over the last 180 minutes. It’s been an interesting start for Kalanic, that’s for sure. Iraq’s new manager has plenty to think about now.