As expected, Iraq’s final group game with Iran proved to be a tense affair for both teams. Although Iraq came closest to snatching a crucial win, Iran dominated for the majority of the 90 minutes and managed to hold onto top spot in a tough group. It was anticipated that Katanec would field a weakened team going into the Iran game in order to rest players for the next round. However, the manager played for a win and started a strong team, including Mohanad Ali.
Iran came closest in the first half, where Sardar Azmoun’s header flew wide with only 11 minutes gone, although there were half-chances for both sides, including a header for Mohanad Ali and a tame shot saved from Ahmed Ibrahim. With Iraq failing to create any real chances, Iran sat back in the second half and allowed Iraq to dominate possession. However, the talk of the first half revolved around Saman Ghoddos after his clear stamp on Safaa Hadi, with the referee perfectly in line to see the incident clearly. Despite this, only a yellow card was issued.
The lack of creativity in Iraq’s side proved to be their biggest obstacle, with no one able to create the key pass needed to break down a stubborn Iranian defence. Bashar and Hussain Ali both had quiet games, but Alaa Abbas and Mohammed Dawood injected much needed pace when they were brought in during the second half. The best chance of the game fell late on to Alaa Abbas, who did well to hold up the ball out on the right hand side. He played in Humam Tariq, who turned and weaved, before whipping in a delicious cross into the box, where Alaa waited and directed his header into the far corner. Beiranvand somehow flicked the ball over the bar and managed to keep the scores level.
Ahmed Ibrahim and Safaa Hadi once again proved to be crucial players for Iraq. Ahmed was central to leading and maintaining a well organised defence, that proved impenetrable by the Iranian attack. Ahmed Ibrahim and Ali Faez were both disciplined and organised, with Alaa Mhawi on the right providing excellent width going forward whilst being equally solid defensively. Safaa also played a crucial role in providing protection for the defence, whilst maintaining possession and linking player between defence and midfield. His efforts to recycle the ball were superb, and allowed Iraq to dominate the midfield battle.
Despite all the possession, Iraq didn’t create much despite dominating in the second half. Iran were happy to sit back and play for a point. With the scores tied, both teams were not prepared to go all out for the win. Iran finished the group in top place, ensuring a favourable draw in the next round. Meanwhile, Iraq managed to stifle an incredible Iranian team and maintain their unbeaten record going into the next round, which will give the team a much needed morale boost. Both teams were winners on the night, and their fans will be happy with the result. The only other time Iraq had managed to remain unbeaten in the group stages was in 2007, where we later went on to win the trophy. Confidence in this Iraq side is at an all time high, with fans and players quickly buying into Katanec’s tactics and antics. Under Katanec, Iraq are now unbeaten in 7 games and continue to grow and improve with every game played.
Iraq’s next game will be played on Tuesday, 16:00 GMT at the Al Nahyan Stadium, where we await one of Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Both have been in terrific form, each winning both of their games against Lebanon and North Korea, who make up Group E. The winner of Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar tie later today will determine who finishes top, thus facing Iraq in the next round. It’s a tasty game to watch for the neutrals too, not only because of the quality of football involved, but because of the political tension ongoing between both countries. Regardless, whoever we are left to face next, we have a great chance of beating them and qualifying to the quarter finals. Yallah ya Iraq!