Monday, July 30, 2007

Iraq: A Deserving Champion

Asian Cup Final, Iraq 1 v Saudi Arabia 0

NOT just because of the sentimental aspect, it’s great to see Iraq crowned as Asian Cup champions for the first time. They were the best all-round unit at this tournament and deserve their success.

While the Saudi’s have looked brilliant and incisive in the front third, they also suffered from numerous deficiencies in midfield and at the back. Iraq were far more balanced and clearly better suited in playing the role of spoiler.

Only against South Korea in the semi final were they out-spoilt; squeezed in midfield and pinned back on the flanks. Otherwise, it’s been Iraq that have controlled most of their opponents and subsequently most of their games.

Ditto on this night, and it was always likely to be the case. If they could contain the front two of Yasser Al Qahtani and Malek Maaz through their committed defence, then they were always likely to have too much up front and in midfield for the Saudi defence, which has improved since the tournament started, but still looked suspect enough.

Younis Mahmoud, if his defence was able to do the job at the other end, was always likely to get amongst the Saudi backline and create havoc with his incredible workrate and will-to-win.

And so it proved, Iraq’s back four of Haider Abdul Amir, Ali Rehema, Jassim Gholam and Bassim Abbas doing a brilliant defensive job on Saudi’s two pocket rockets. They made it a fourth clean sheet in six, only two goals conceded, the stuff of champions.

The Lebanon-based Abbas, in particular, was outstanding, having Maaz in his pocket, never giving him a chance to turn, pressuring him every time he got near the ball. Al Qahtani, meanwhile, was well looked after by the two central men, Gholam and Rehema, both physical and mean in the challenge.

Only his brother, Abdulrahman, looked a threat in the first half, driving at Abdul Amir, but he has clearly been playing injured in the knocks-outs and had had enough by the break.

No other Saudi attacker was afforded an inch of space. Some of the defending and hassling from Iraq looked personal, seemingly designed to unsettle Yasser, no doubt seen as the Saudi talisman. It was as tough a night as Mark Shield has had, and he handled it well, despite a couple of decent late shouts for penalties, one to each side.

While the bald-headed duo at the back set the tone for Iraq, they were equally well supported by the hardest working, best organised and most committed midfield in the tournament. Just as he had been against South Korea in the semi, holding midfielder Qusay Munir was outstanding, buzzing all over the place, getting a foot in almost every time, breaking up attack after attack.

Nearby was the official man of the match and my own man of the tournament, the graceful Nashat Akram, back to his best after a quiet semi.

While his first half was steady, it was in the second half, with the trophy on the line and the pressure on, when he really blossomed, proving he has the big-match mentality to go with silky skills. Europe beckons.

Out wide, Hawar Mulla Mohammed (left) and Mahdi Karim on the right were equally as diligent going backwards as they were in offence, while the two front-men, Karrar Jassim and Mahmoud, worked the house down.

The skipper, as he has done throughout the tournament, led from the front, chasing everything down, driving his nation forward. Younes for PM?

He was rewarded with the only goal of the final, getting on the end of a Mulla Mohammed in-swinger to the back post, hopelessly mis-read by keeper Yasser Al Mosailem, who had his best night of a forgettable tournament.

It took Younes to joint top scorer alongside Al Qahtani and Naohiro Takahara and was enough to convince those who decide these things to crown him the official player of the tournament.

Regardless of who was the tournament mvp, there is little doubt Iraq where the team and story of the tournament, and it’s a massive credit to all involved.

Brazilian Jorvan Vieria will deservedly take much of the credit for molding this motley crew in such a short space of time, but there is little doubt he had at his disposal one of the most motivated sporting teams you could imagine, committed to a greater cause.

The world – both the football and the broader - is a better place for Iraq’s Asian Cup victory.

Watch the final? Followed Iraq throughout? Who's caught the eye for you?


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