Defeat is always difficult to stomach. However, it’s significantly more painful when it comes against a team that you have failed to beat in four consecutive attempts within a five month period. Katanec will be pulling his hair out after yet another loss to Bahrain, who have now knocked Iraq out of both the 2019 WAFF and the 2019 Gulf Cup, going on to win both at the expense of the Lions.
The Iraqi manager has found it difficult to crack the code required to beat Bahrain and their exceptional coach, Helio Sousa. Despite limited resources in all areas, Helio has created an effective team built around grinding out results. Although Iraq had a relatively impressive tournament, Katanec will be looking over at Bahrain with envy, wondering what else he must do in order to finally win a trophy. Whilst Iraq possess talented and experienced players, Bahrain have beaten Iraq twice and drawn twice in their last four encounters despite possessing a much weaker squad of players.
Of course, winning isn’t everything in football and the Gulf Cup is nothing more than window dressing for Arab teams to gain bragging rights over their neighbours. Katanec correctly saw this tournament as an opportunity to bleed fringe players and youngsters into the squad given the absence of numerous key players who were unavailable due to club commitments – Bashar Resan, Humam Tariq and the remaining expats.. In stepped Mustafa Mohammed, Ibrahim Bayesh, Mohammed Qasim, Shareef Abdulkadhim, Hasan Hammood, Fahad Talib and Mohammed Jaleel.
The group opener was an example of Iraq at their finest – a well refined machine that effectively grinds out results against strong opposition. Qatar controlled the ball for the majority of the match but failed to really threaten the Iraqi defense. The back line looked immense with Ahmed Ibrahim leading the back five. The only liability was Mustafa Mohammed, who struggled to keep up and was subsequently replaced a half time. The midfield pressured high up the pitch and defended as a unit, closing down spaces in numbers and passing the ball wide when attacking. Mohammed Qasim’s performance will long be remembered too, especially for his second goal, which nearly ripped the net. It was a mature performance from a group of players who looked like a team rather than a bunch of individuals. A shocking win over the Asian champions was exactly the boost Katanec needed.
A comfortable win over UAE followed, thanks to goals from Alaa Abbas and Alaa Abdulzahra, which further solidified Iraq’s position as a serious threat to the rest of Asian football. With Alaa Abbas once again proving to be a deadly finisher, Iraqi fans are delighted to have both him and Mimi available as reliable goalscorers to choose from. Iraq completely outplayed UAE off the pitch, containing the opposition with minimal fuss and attacking on the break.
The only setback in the group stages came as a result of Mustafa Mohammed’s red card 6 minutes into Iraq’s final group game with Yemen, which ended as a boring nil-nil draw. Seven points were enough to give Iraq pole position going into the semifinals, where Bahrain looked a tough opponent.
An excellent start to the semifinal with Bahrain saw Iraq take an early lead twice, through Mimi and Ibrahim Bayesh. Bahrain clawed their way back into the match through a final second equaliser in the first half, which made life difficult for Katanec. Missing key players Alaa Abbas and Saad Natiq made the tie more tricky. A long ball over the defense was poorly defended by Mhawi, and Iraq found themselves back at square one. Bahrain sat back and defended for the rest of the game, absorbing the pressure of Iraqi attacks that failed to break down their well organised defense. Once again, it was evident that there was a clear lack of creativity in the squad and an area Katanec needs to address urgently. Hopefully, this will be the catalyst that sees Jiloan recalled back into the squad for the final World Cup Qualifiers with Hong Kong, Cambodia and Iran.
Penalty shootouts are always a throw of the dice, and unfortunately Iraq were the losers on this occasion. Mohammed Qasim’s penalty was just wide of the mark, and the youngster broke down in tears despite having an exceptional tournament. At a time where football is holding the nation together, the pressure and responsibilities on his shoulders may have proven too much. Bahrain would go on to win the tournament by defeating Saudi Arabia in the final.
Wining the Gulf Cup 24 would have been an incredible achievement for Katanec and the Lions of Mesopotamia, but there remain many positives for fans to brag about. The manager’s system is finally being accepted by the players, who are buying into his philosophy and approach, which was one of the biggest criticisms Katanec faced. Players like Amjed Atwan and Ahmed Ibrahim are stepping up and leading the inexperienced side. Iraq look like a solid team with a relatively clear identity, which was not the case up until we recently beat Iran. We are taking steps in the right direction, so it is important to continue supporting the manager and the team. Let’s just hope we can top our WCQ group and qualify for the next round.
The next Gulf Cup, to be held in 2021, will be hosted in Iraq. Whilst some way away, it’s an exciting time for Iraqi football to finally host a another major tournament in its new range of stadiums across the country.