The quarterfinal between Iraq versus Iran was never going to be a run-of-the-mill affair.
Coming into the match, Iraq had only beaten their arch rivals once in their previous five AFC Asian Cup meetings losing the other four.
Iran, on the other hand, had exited the AFC Asian Cup at the quarterfinal stage in 2011 and 2007, so something had to give.
The two sides couldn’t be more contrasting. The Iranian’s well-drilled, experienced and obdurate against a youthful, energetic but inconsistent Iraqi team.
What Iran and Iraq served up was an incredible encounter between the two Asian rivals. It’s safe to say that this has been the game of the tournament so far. It may be clichéd to say but this clash had it all.
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1. Dejagah and Gharouri had the freedom of the right flank:
Team Melli had a lot of joy down the right hand side even when they were down to 10-men. Ashkan Dejagah, before he was subbed off, and Vouria Ghafouri were constantly getting into good positions and tormenting Iraqi fullback Dhurgham Ismail. Ismail wasn’t helped by his teammate Abdul Zahra. Zahra’s unwillingness to track back exposed Ismail to constant two on one situations and the Iraqi defender was struggling to cope.
One wonders if Iran would have created further clear cut chances if they had pushed more men into the box when they had a full complement of players on the pitch.
As for Ismail, he would eventually have the last laugh.
2. Ben Williams – Spotlight on the official:
Iran versus Iraq is always going to be a tasty affair, so not only did the match need a strong official it needed a smart one too. Ben Williams for the most part did his job well but he made a huge call at the end of the first half sending off Mehrdad Pooladi.
Before the incident, the Australian official consistently looked to play advantage recognizing quickly that both sides were not above from committing cynical tackles to break-up the rhythm of the game.
Indeed, it was an advantage played by Williams that led to the opening goal. Ashkan Dejagah was fouled just inside the Iraqi half but the Australian official was quick to spot Vouria Ghafouri picking up the ball and charging down the right. The fullback’s cross invited Sardar Azmoun to power a thumping header into the back of the net.
By playing the advantage at every opportunity Williams demonstrated to both teams that he wasn’t going to let cynical play disrupt the flow of the game.
However, Williams changed the tone of the contest dismissing Pooladi for two bookable offences. The Iranian player had been booked in the 21st minute for a late challenge and got his second yellow for simulation at the end of the half.
Pooladi had got into an altercation with the Iraqi goalkeeper Jalal Hassan with the latter putting his hand on the former’s chest. Pooladi saw the opportunity to go down and forced the official to make a decision however the Team Melli man could not have foreseen what choice the ref was going to make.
The extraordinary thing about the sending off was that Williams appeared to forget that he had booked Pooladi earlier and needed to be reminded by the Iraqi players the Iranian was on a yellow. Would he have shown Pooladi a second yellow if he remembered that the player was already on a booking?
It certainly was a controversial incident but it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Pooladi who was deliberately trying to get an opponent sent off. He may think twice before hitting the deck again.
3. Radhi Shenaishil’s positive thinking paid off:
At the beginning of the second half Iraq’s coach Radhi Shenaishil made an attacking change bringing on Marwan Hussein and instructed his fullbacks to push up high and pin the Iranians back in their half. He gambled that his opposite number Carlos Queiroz would tell his team to shut up shop and defend their lead.
Shenaishil’s plan worked as Iran were forced to play in their own half and clear the ball often inviting wave upon wave of Iraqi pressure. The Iraqis was rewarded when Ahmed Yasmin equalized turning in a cross to score a deserved equalizer. Iraq had threatened to level with a free kick which Alireza Haghighi superbly tipped over. Naturally Iraq sat back a little after scoring the equalizer but one wonders what would have happened if they pushed harder during normal time.
The advantage was with the Shenaishil’s men going into extra time as the Iranians looked as if they were tiring. Sadar Azmoun came off as early as the 63rd minute suffering what appeared to be severe cramp.
The Iraqis pushed forward once again and initially it seemed like the extra-man advantage would eventually tell as the veteran Younis Mahmood stooped in to head Iraq in front with more joy from the left. The Iraqis celebrated as if they had won the match but Iran were made of sterner stuff…
4. Iran refuses to be beaten:
You can question Iran’s tactics, the defensive nature of the side or the lack of service to their front men but what cannot be queried is their sheer refusal to lose. Javad Nekounam and Andranik Teymourian were superb in midfield organizing the side and pressing when was required.
When Iran went behind the first time it seemed like Iraq had done enough. When Iran went behind a second time it looked certain as if Iraq had done enough. Regardless of his tactics Carlos Queiroz has instilled in his team a never say die spirit.
Their first equalizer saw Morteza Pouraliganji rose to head home in the 109th minute. The second equalizer came with just one minute left. There was a desperate goalmouth scramble from a corner which saw the ball cross the line and bounce back into play before Reza Ghoochaanejhad headed in from close range making the score 3-3 to send the game into a penalty shoot-out, the first of the competition.
It was a remarkable show of courage especially as Iraq’s fullback, Dhurgham Ismail, had coolly converted a spot-kick, correctly given by the referee, just two minutes earlier.
5. Younis Mahmood’s Panenka Perfection:
The cliché is that penalties are a lottery. That is an absolute nonsense shoot-outs are a test of nerve and skill. The start of the shoot-out didn’t promise much as the first two penalties were missed horribly. From then on in the spot kicks were exemplary, going high into the roof of the net.
With Iraq trailing 4-3 on penalties up stepped Younis Mahmood with his country’s last regulation spot-kick. He had missed his previous two efforts and didn’t look too confident as he walked to the penalty spot. He then produced a delicate Panenka completely wrong footing the Iranian keeper Haghighi.
To take a Panenka in normal time takes guts. To take a Panenka after 120-minutes, losing the lead twice in the process and knowing that a miss would mean elimination from the competition takes an incredible amount of self confidence and steel. The penalty visibly lifted his fellow Iraqi teammates.
Then at 6-6 following a miss by Iran’s Vahid Amiri, Salam Shakir stepped up and slotted home to give Iraq a famous 7-6 penalty shoot-out victory and finally end a match that will echo long in the annals of history of the Asian Cup.
The Lions of Mesopotamia are making themselves heard. Their next opponents, South Korea, will do well to heed the roar.
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