Despite all the difficulties this Iraqi team has experienced over recent months, what with the ongoing protests currently occupying the country and resulting in both home games for Iraq being played in Jordan, Iraqi fans will forever remember this day. Katanec changes things up with a defensive approach to this huge fixture, with Rebin Sulaka called up as a sweeper to play alongside a trio of central defenders. Alongside Natiq and Ahmed Ibrahim were Ali Adnan and Alaa Mhawi, who completed our defense. Behind them was Hameed, who kept his position as the team’s main goalkeeper. Meanwhile, Bashar, Safaa, Humam and Atwan occupied the midfield with Meme leading the attack alone.
Although it was a defensive approach, Iraq started the game perfectly and took the match to the opposition – within the first moments, Iraq were attacking the Iranian defense and forcing them into errors. Bashar, a fantastic player who has been underwhelming for the national team recently, had a terrific performance and stood head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates. Picking up the ball down the right flank after only 11 minutes, he ran at the opposition and his perfect cross was attacked by Ali Adnan, whose shot was parried, only for Meme to slot in the opening goal. Meme has been a phenomenal player for Iraq and somehow getting better with every game too. He has scored in all four of the national team’s fixtures this qualifying campaign.
After taking the lead, Iraq sat back and invited the Iranians to control the game. A near goal should have come as a warning to Iraq, when Hameed was comically beaten by a bouncing clearance that nearly landed over him. Moments later, Ali Adnan failed to clear a loose ball, only for him to lose it to the opposition in his own box. Nourollahi then took four different touches in the Iraqi box, before his tame shot found its way passed Hameed. Following such an admirable first half, it felt underwhelming to go into the second half on a draw.
An injury to Hameed forced him off the pitch soon after half time, with Hassan Jalal replacing him and performing admirably. Jalal coming on to replace Hameed was the catalyst for the win as it spurred on the entire team. The defense naturally improved as a result of not having a liability behind them, which allowed Rebin, Natiq and Ahmed Ibrahim to play their game more naturally. All three did incredibly well, and controlled Sardar for the full 90 minutes. Alaa and Ali were therefore able to push up and support the midfield to dictate the match further up the pitch. Safaa and Bashar both worked their socks off in the second half, but it would be unfair to not give some praise to Humam and Atwan too, who worked incredibly hard.
Shojaei was sent off after 81 minutes, when both sides seemed to have settled for a draw, which would have been a fair result at the time. The match had been heated from the start, with Iranian players lucky to not pick up many bookings early on. However, Shojaei’s red card turned the game in Iraq’s favour once more. Iraq started to press and Amjed Atwan’s last minute corner was converted by Alaa Abbas, who had come on from the bench to net the winner for his country with a terrific diving header.
A huge win and an enormous performance from the Lions. Iraq top their group with Bahrain only able to draw against Hong Kong in today’s other Group C fixture. Meme’s injury and substitution would be the only area of concern for the Iraqi fans, but Alaa Abbas’ winner will do wonders for his conference as we take on Bahrain on Tuesday. A win then will be enough to see Iraq go through – congratulations to Iraqis on this enormous victory. Yallah ya Iraq!