Fans are well aware of the difficulties currently plaguing the Iraqi national team yet expectations are still high as ever for the Lions of Mesopotamia. Despite the constant changing of managers, lack of long-term strategic planning and an inept FA, Katanec still possess an abundance of quality at his disposal. It would be unfair on the manager to expect the national side to compete in the final given the quality of teams competing and the circumstances surrounding Iraq, however, anything less than a quarter-final spot will be deemed a huge failure. Many fans will also be anticipating Iraq reaching a semi-final, as they did in 2015. However, they rode their luck in that tournament and are a completely different side, with Younis Mahmoud, Yaser Kasim, Saad Abdulamir and Salam Shakir no longer in the picture. Fortunately, the tournament draw has been favourable to Iraq, with their Group D consisting of Yemen, Vietnam and Iran. Whilst the latter will undoubtedly be a tough fixture, the first two games against Vietnam and Yemen, respectively, will be crucial. Both are winnable and should put us in a good position to enter the final round of the group stage with nothing to lose against Iran.
Under Katanec, Iraq have looked a much more organised side, capable of playing decent football in the middle of the park – the midfield has been built around Osama Rashid, who is experienced and more than capable of matching anyone in Asia. Likewise, Ali Adnan, Bashar Resan, Ahmed Yasin, and Hussain Ali are all exciting players who will create trouble for any opposition. The main challenge for the manager will be distributing the ball to these players in order for them to weave their magic, where Osama Rashid and his midfield partner will prove key, whether that’s Amjed Atwan or Safaa Hadi. Likewise, Muhanned Ali has brought a different attacking dimension to the team, where his presence has offered the midfield an outlet to target. His height and strength will allow him to hold the ball up and play in his teammates, most of whom will want to run at the opposition defence with the ball at their feet.
Exciting youngster Mohammed Dawud is also a last minute call up to the squad, with Mehdi Kamil not making the cut. His energy and speed will cause trouble for opponents. All this makes for a tasty combination, yet Iraq’s woes remain solely in defence. The back four and goalkeeper continue to look uncomfortable with aerial threats and every attack against the Iraqi defence has fans feeling uneasy. It’s an unusually unbalanced side and the manager will face the challenge of finding the right balance between attack and defence. Frans Dhia Putros makes a surprise call-up to the side, but it’s likely we’ll see a back five of Hameed, Walid Salim, Rebin Solaka, Ahmed Ibrahim and Ali Adnan.
Football is everything in Iraq, where people have very little to celebrate. After a lengthy period of political instability following the 2003 invasion, the country finally seems to have found some security. There are still other huge difficulties impacting Iraqi people however, such as lack of basic services, food and water. The constant struggles of Iraq have resulted in them channelling all their hope into football, with the national side the focal point of all this – so much so, that there are countless songs made regarding the national team by huge Iraqi musicians and artists. As a result, expectations are always high and there’s huge pressure on the national team to perform – which they usually do on the big stage.
It will be interesting to see how far Iraq can progress in this tournament given that it’s the first time since 2007 where Younis Mahmoud will not be captain, and there will not be a single player from the ‘Golden Era’ present in the squad. It’ll be up to the more experienced players in the squad to step up and lead the side – players like Ali Adnan need to make their presence count. Likewise, Katanec has barely had enough time as Iraq’s manager to scratch his head, let alone properly prepare for a tournament of this magnitude. However, most of the signs under his authority have been positive. Let’s hope that Iraq can carry that through into the tournament and give their fans something to cheer about once more. Yallah Ya Iraq!
Group Stage Predictions:
Iraq 2-1 Vietnam
Iraq 3-0 Yemen
Iraq 1-3 Iran
Full Squad of 23:
Goalkeepers: Jalal Hassan, Mohammed Gassid, Mohammed Hameed,
Defence: Ahmad Ibrahim, Frans Dhia Putros, Saad Natiq, Ali Faez, Ali Adnan, Alaa Ali Mhawi, Rebin Sulaka, Waleed Salim
Midfield: Safaa Hadi, Osama Rashid, Ahmed Yasin, Humam Tariq, Bashar Resan, Amjad Attwan, Ali Husni, Hussein Ali
Attack: Muhammed Dawud, Mohanad Ali, Ayman Hussein, Alaa Abbas