Muhanad Ali spared Katanec’s blushes with a vital equaliser in the dying seconds of an eventful game, as Iraq salvaged an important point away to Bahrain in the Group C opener. Despite having a tough game, and a patchy start to his club career in Qatar, Meme kept believing in himself and rose to the challenge when his country needed him most – signs of a big player.
Katanec started a strong side, with only five players in the starting XI who had previously faced Bahrain in the WAFF 2019 final. The addition of Iraq’s expat played a key role in strengthening the squad, but the inevitable weakness of Iraq’s goalkeeping came back to haunt us once again as Hameed conceded a disastrous goal in the opening minutes of the game, where a weak cross trickled between his legs and into the goal. Out with the entire game plan thanks to a tumultuous early error. When will Iraq find a goalkeeper that’s not completely dreadful? We can only hope.
It was all Iraq from that point onwards, with Justin Meram coming closest with an open goal header that was mishit. Bahrain tried to counter but an excellent save by Hameed kept Iraq in the game – something to redeem himself by ever so slightly. Whilst Iraq maintained possession and tried to create chances, poor crossing on either flank meant Mohanned Ali was isolated and we failed to create any meaningful chances. Ahmed Yasin and Justin Meram had poor games by their usually impressive standards.
Katanec looked to change things at half time, bringing in both Bashar and Hussain Ali, but the latter picked up a serious injury with his first touch of the match and was immediately replaced by Humam Tariq. For all the faults of Katanec, he was brave in his substitutions and highlighted his commitment to win the game by making positive attacking changes early on. Osama Rashid was the star of the show in midfield, where he demonstrated what he’s capable of doing for the manager who has shown faith in him with this recall. His passing was crisp and positive, as he tried to play in his teammates rather than take the option of dribbling as his teammates did. Likewise, he was always showing for the ball and making himself available for the pass, despite his teammates appearing reluctant to do so on many occasions.
The second half saw Iraq continue to press but struggling to break the Bahraini defence, who sat deep and played on the counterattack. Iraq kept knocking with half-chances and the occasional header from set pieces, but they finally found their goal when a lovely Ali Adnan cross was beautifully converted by Meme.
It was a huge point gained rather than two points lost. Iraq was potted alongside Iran, Bahrain, Cambodia and Hong Kong in the first stage of our quest to reach the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar. Iraq’s main rival in Group C is likely to be Bahrain, given that Iran will almost certainly walk the group and secure top spot. We will be aiming to finish second in the group, so a draw with Bahrain is no small feat. Next up will be Hong Kong, where Iraq will finally be playing their first competitive game in Iraq for decades. Yallah Ya Iraq!