Blessings can come in many forms. Optimistic Iraqi fans, if there are any left, would like to think that today’s 2019 WAFF Final loss to Bahrain will have many positives to take away. Whilst the loss was disappointing in numerous ways, Iraq demonstrated an excellent ability to host a major international tournament with 9 different teams playing in two separate cities over a span of nearly three weeks. All the games ran smoothly, safely and were broadcasted across the world on numerous platforms. Astonishingly too, despite all the challenges faced by fans, the attendance for the games was incredible, with numerous games sold out.
Imagine growing up in Iraq, loving your national team and supporting them with every match they play. Yet, despite your love and admiration for them, you’ve never been able to see your country play an internationally competitive game in your home. This tournament proved once again that Iraq is more than capable to host their international fixtures on their territory, which is essential in light of FIFA’s recent U-turn on Iraq playing their home fixtures in Iraq as opposed to a neutral venue. Just take a moment to consider how beneficial it would be for Iraq to play their 2022 World Cup Qualifiers in Karbala, Erbil and Basra, with their fans in full attendance of the game.
The final itself was a bit of a disappointing footballing spectacle. Bahrain looked a poor side, despite walking away as winners, but the Iraqi homegrown players failed to demonstrate how good they can be in the absence of their missing expat players such as Ahmed Yasin, Justin Meram and Ali Adnan. Perhaps another blessing in disguise for Iraq? A win today would have surely given more ammunition to a racist Iraqi FA that marginalises its expat players. Thankfully, this final demonstrated just how important those players are to the success of Iraqi football.
Kadence tried to play a compressed midfield, to stop the team from being stretched defensively, which worked well alongside the high-pressing of the Bahraini defence. This allowed the defence of Saad Natiq and Ahmed Ibrahim to cope well with the pressure that came their way. Other than the goal, which came courtesy of sloppy positioning by Alaa Mhawi, and Jalal Hassan being beaten at his near post, Bahrain didn’t really create much bar a chance or two late on. It was good to see that Katanec is trying to sort out the midfield problem that has plagued Iraq for years, with Bayish looking a good addition alongside the ever-average Amjed Atwan and Mehdi Kamil.
The main issue for Iraq was instead on the other end of the pitch, where they were unable to create any meaningful chances. Husain Ali had a disappointing game, whilst the fullbacks whipped in cross after cross for the entire match without creating anything meaningful. Alaa Abbas changed things up when he came on at halftime, but even he couldn’t create anything with the poor crosses that came his way. Katanec failed to come up with a successful ‘Plan B’ halfway into the second half, where the team launched the ball up to Aymen Hussain as a target man – unsurprising and uninspired.
Overall, there was some progress by Katanec over the 2019 WAFF and unfortunately Iraq weren’t able to take a much needed victory in front of their home fans, but Bahrain were deserved winners. The focus must now turn towards the 2022 World Cup Qualification campaign, where fans must get behind the manager as we take on Bahrain once again in September.