Football can be an extremely cruel game at times, yet it can also be equally peculiar. In what turned out to be a heartbreaking 90 minutes for Iraqi fans, it was one of their own that sent the Lions of Mesopotamia packing after a narrow defeat to Qatar. Bassam Al-Rawi, born in Iraq, and son of the former Iraqi defender, Hisham Al-Rawi, scored the only goal of the game. Yet, here was Bassam, wearing the purple of Qatar, rather than the famous green of Iraq, knocking his abandoned homeland out of the 2019 Asian Cup.
Katanec kept a similar starting XI to the side that drew with Iran, with only an injured Ahmed Yasin replaced by Bashar Resan. It was a strong team that seems to have found a rhythm under their new manager, who has finally stuck with a solid system that appears to have brought the best out of a talented but disjointed squad. Despite this, Qatar didn’t take long to threaten the Iraqi goal, when a poorly cleared cross was struck onto the woodwork by Abdelkarim Hassan. In the other end, Muhanad nearly gave Iraq the lead when he ran onto a defensive blunder but for a heavy touch that allowed the goalkeeper to gather from the one-on-one breakthrough.
It was a cagey first half otherwise, where neither team managed to create much in fear of exposing their defence. Safaa Hadi did a tremendous job of keeping Almoez Ali quiet, by man-marking him tightly and giving the tournament’s top goalscorer no time on the ball. However, Iraq’s lack of creativity became evident once more given the lack of service provided to Meme, whose only chance came courtesy of his own hard work, similarly to both his previous goals in this tournament. An early injury to Humam Tariq complicated matters further for the manager, when he was stretchered off in tears following a muscle injury. Ali Hosni was his replacement.
The second half picked up where it left off in the previous 45 minutes. Iraq continued to dominate possession whilst Qatar sat back to soak the pressure and play on the counter attack. Despite seeing the majority of the ball, few clear chances were created to test the Qatari goalkeeper. Ali Hosni injected pace into the Iraqi attack, whilst Hussain Ali looked to push forward down the right wing. With 62 minutes played, Alaa Mhawi won the ball back outside the Iraqi half, but the referee awarded a freekick despite the player’s protests. Up stepped Bassam, who curled a stunning shot into the Iraqi net. Could Jalal Hassan have saved it? Perhaps, and a better goalkeeper certainly would have. To rub salt into the Iraqi wounds, Bassam celebrated his goal without the slightest indication of him having just scored against his homeland.
A dejected Iraq pushed forward for an equaliser, but luck had turned against them once more. Ali Hosni, on as a replacement for the injured Humam, was also taken off following a sustained injury, this time for Mohammed Dawood. Ali was making only his first appearance of the tournament, due to injuries that limited his availability in the group stages. Just like Humam, the player went off in tears. Only three minutes later, Alaa Mhawi was also picked up a knock, with Rebin Sulaka coming on as Iraq’s final substitution. All three injuries severely hampered Iraq’s gameplan, and questions need to be asked of the manager and coaching staff. Why were the players picking up so many injuries? Was it the result of overtraining? Poor warm-ups? Lack of conditioning? Lack of rest?
Whilst Qatar were able to replace their tired players with fresh legs, Iraq were forced to make tactical changes to replace injured personal. As a result, the players looked visibly shattered. Resting players in the meaningless game vs. Iran could have prevented the Iraqi players from injury and fatigue towards the end of the second half, where we desperately needed an equaliser. The players gave their all however, and cannot be faulted for effort. They continued running up until the final whistle. However, with fatigue comes a lack of sharpness and concentration in the opposition hald, and it was this that prevented us from finding that much needed goal to tie the game. Would the game have played out differently had it not been due to the injuries sustained by Humam, Ali Hosni and Alaa? Perhaps, but this is football.
Despite elimination from the tournament following the painful loss to Qatar, there were plenty of positives to take away from the four games played. Iraq have come a long way in only a short space of time, where they look much more organised and a unit capable of dominating games in the middle of the park. This is a stark contrast to the team only a year ago, that was unable to string more than five passes together. Likewise, they have reminded the world that they are a force to be reckoned with and are capable of challenging anyone in Asia. However, the 2019 Asian Cup was merely a stepping stone for Katanec to concentrate on, with the real goal being qualification to the 2022 World Cup. There is a lot more to work to be done, but this young squad has all the right ingredients to make it happen. Onwards and upwards – Yallah Ya Iraq!