Ali Adnan’s heroics in the final minute of the Vietnam match put Iraq within touching distance of the second round of the the 2019 Asian Cup. Although it was not a great performance, the three points were all that mattered as it allowed Iraq to enter their game against Yemen with the possibility of qualifying to the final 16 with a match to spare. Katanec had fans and opposition guessing as to who the starting XI will feature, following the shambles of the Vietnam game, where the team was leaked three days prior to kickoff.
Yemen entered the game on the back of a 5-0 battering to tournament favourites, Iran, and anything other than a comfortable victory would have been unacceptable for Iraq. There were significant changes to the starting XI, with the entire defence reshuffled after the shockingly poor goals conceded against Vietnam. Frans Putros, Ali Faez and Waleed Salim were replaced by Rebin Sulaka and Alaa Mhawi, with Katanec opting to go with an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Osama Rashid was also dropped for Humam Tariq, who had a brilliant cameo in the last game. He partnered Bashar Resan and Safaa Hadi in midfield, whilst the front three of Ahmed Yasin, Hussain Ali and Muhanad Ali remained unchanged.
It was only 11 minutes before Iraq took the lead in what turned out to be an extremely one-sided affair. Iraq’s superstar striker, Muhanad Ali, picked up a loose ball outside of the opposition box, weaved passed three defenders and smashed in from the edge of the box. Although the Yemeni defence gave him far too much room to maneuver, ‘Mimi’ showed great anticipation and footwork to pick up the ball and beat his marker. His finish was unstoppable too. ‘Mimi’ has now scored two goals in two starts and is looking like the player Iraq has been desperately needing for over a decade to take on the role of Younis Mahmoud.
Beshar Resan was quick to double Iraq’s lead on the 21st minute, where his deflected shot crashed off the post and into the net. It was a beautiful passage of play for Iraq, where the ball was passed around the entire team patiently, waiting for the right moment to attack. With the Lions of Mesopotamia comfortably in the lead and on course for qualification, they disappointingly took their foot off the pedal and started to become sloppy with their play. Humam Tariq ran the show throughout, playing behind Safaa and Beshar in the midfield area. His passing range and vision proved fantastic as he distributed the ball at ease with very little pressure from a Yemeni side lacking any real quality or conviction.
The second half was no different, with Iraq unchallenged and going through the motions, and the game seemed to come to a faltering end. Amjed Atwan replaced Humam Tariq early on in the second half, and Alaa Abbas was given a chance to impress when he made way for Muhanad Ali. Both Humam and ‘Mimi’ were incredible today, and Katanec looked to give them a much needed rest with the final group game vs. Iran only a few days away. On another day, ‘Mimi‘ would have also bagged himself a second, but his chipped finish came crashing off the post.
Muhammed Dawood was given a late substitute appearance with only five minutes left, which was enough for him to leave his mark in the game. His mesmerising run down the right saw his deep cross headed back across goal by Ahmed Yasin, where an unmarked Alaa Abbas smashed home for Iraq’s third. The goal capped a comfortable performance and marked a win to send Iraq through to the next round without having to get out of third gear. The players will be able to recharge their batteries in time for the game on Wednesday, where a much greater challange awaits them. Iran are tournament favourites and have scored 7 goals in two games, whilst conceding none.
The last time Iraq faced bitter rivals Iran in a competitive tie, it resulted in one of the most memorable Asian Cup matches in history, where both teams fought out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the 2015 Asian Cup quarter final. Younis Mahmoud, Ahmed Yasin and Dhurgham Ismail were all scorers that day, but it was Salam Shakir’s penalty that sent us through to semi-finals. Can Iraq repeat their heroics from that game? A win will allow us to top the group and face significantly easier opposition in the last 16. Anything other than a win however, and it’s likely we will face either Saudi Arabia or Qatar in the knockout stages of the tournament. The good news is that Iraq tend to turn up in the big games and they don’t get any bigger than Iraq vs. Iran. Yallah ya Iraq!