By Amro Alkado
We predicted a tight and cagey affair. How wrong we were! But we take delight in that, because the fans at today’s game in Canberra were treated to an Asian Cup instant classic. Iraq vs Iran was a game that promised little, but delivered oh so much and in grand fashion. A true celebration of International & Continental tournaments, a match which in itself put many entire tournaments to shame. Iraq ran out eventual winners on penalties (and how cruel it was that a team had to lose the game today in that fashion), but so much happened before then.
A drab start
The game threatened to follow expectations in the first half. With Iraq controlling possession in the first half and Iran largerly happy to let them have the ball in their own half. The Iran press was in effect as soon as Iraq crossed the halfway line and it was effective. Iran playing on the fast break looked the more likely to score as Iraq looked to be out of ideas in the opening period of the game. Dejagah’s match up against Dhurgham Ismail early on seemed too much for the young Iraqi Left Back. He was intent on a foot race with the Iranian midfielder & stuck too close to him, but lost out too many times both in pace and power. Sardar Azmoun’s goal highlighted this battle directly, with Dejagah receiving the ball in midfield, Dhurgham predictably came in close and was promptly dispatched and left on the ground as Dejagah released Ghafouri to cross in for Sardar Azmoun’s opener.
The game at this point threatened to run away from Iraq, who’s forward forays relied on long balls to Mahmoud who had by far his finest game of the tournament. His chance in the 26th minute was well saved by Haghighi, and that was about as threatening as Iraq got at the beginning of the game.
The sending off redresses the balance
Pooladi’s sending off seemed like a distant memory by the end in the context of the game but it was the pivotal moment of the match. Ben Williams the oft derided Australian referee, deemed Pooladi’s dive after Hassan’s nudge was worthy of a yellow. It turned out to be his second yellow, which williams wasn’t aware of immediately. Would his decision have been different if he knew? We will never know that, but we know it changed the game. Iraq suddenly began to dominate and while they didn’t punish Iran immediately, they gained the upper hand, never truly relinquishing it from there on in. Iran lost their renowned defensive shape and discipline, and with an Iraqi forward line that includes the likes of Yasin & Mahmoud, Iraq were always going to come back into it.
The equaliser came in the second half through an Alaa Abdul Zahra cross, which bobbled through to Yasin who guided it home for his second of the tournament. This had come after a fantastic free kick from Yasir Kasem forced Haghighi into an acrobatic save. Iran were on the ropes after the goal, and it looked for a few minutes like Iraq would turn the screw and score a second. But after a couple of lengthy injury delays which disrupted the Iraqi rhythm, the second half then reverted to type with Iraq dominating possession but rarely threatening to make Iran pay. It’s pretty fair to say that without the sending off the game would have likely remained a tight affair with Iran running out winners, but football loves to spoil us sometimes, and today it did so in special fashion.
Extra Time Goals Galore
With extra time, the game turned from a run of the mill quarter final, to a classic that will be long remembered. Four goals in the space of half an hour provided a thrilling finale before penalty kicks. Iraq & Iran traded mammoth blows as goals from Younis Mahmoud & Dhurgham were answered by Pouraliganji & Ghoochannedjhad respectively. As we pointed out in our preview, Dhurgham and Adnan did end up playing on the left together and they combined beautifully to provide the ball that fell to Younis who finished with a diving header. What a game the Iraqi legend had too, his fitness looked so superior compared to the opener against Jordan and his “old man walk” celebration was a jab at those who have questioned his age and his ability on the field in this tournament.
Credit to Iran though, they never gave up and played their part in the pulsating finale to the game with two headed goals. One of which was a response in the 119th minute after falling behind only minutes earlier to Dhurgham’s penalty. A testament to the character of the team which never gave up.
Penalty Shootout Drama
The drama didn’t end there though, and penalties ended 7-6 in favour of Iraq, with some expertly dispatched kicks on both sides. Mahmoud’s Panenka was a nod at the same penalty miss which occurred in the friendly between the teams only a few weeks back. Raw nerves by the rejuvenated Iraqi veteran.
There was simply far too much in this game to cover in one review, but it’s fair to say that this was one of the greatest Asian Cup matches that has ever been played, and one of the finest International matches in recent memory. For Iran, the wait for a 4th Asian Cup win continues for at least another four years-it has now been 39 years since their last title on home soil. Queiroz has already stated he is not sure if he will continue as coach, so it could be a crossroads for Team Melli.
As for Iraq, Shneishel has managed to instill that most elusive of traits in this Iraq team, belief. He has old heads like Shaker and Mahmoud alongisde a core of players who made it to the Semi Finals of the U20 World Cup in 2013. This is a team that is no stranger to knockout tournament football. Iraqis were out in the streets of Baghdad, Basra & Erbil celebrating this victory today. It may not be 2007 again, but it certainly feels like it could yet happen again for Iraq. We’ll find out more on Monday when they take on South Korea in the Semi Final.