Dubai (AFP) – Iran finished top of their Asian Cup group on Wednesday after a hard-fought but goalless draw with arch-rivals Iraq at a packed Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.

The latest instalment in one of football’s great rivalries began at a frenetic pace as the two teams reprised their classic 2015 quarter-final, won by Iraq on penalties after a 3-3 draw.

But a raw and uncompromising first half in front of a baying crowd gave way to a more tactical second period as both teams slowed down and probed for opportunities — and Iraq nearly snatched a late winner.

The 0-0 result meant that Iran, Carlos Queiroz’s three-time winners, finished top of Group D on goal difference after their 5-0 thrashing of Yemen and 2-0 win over Vietnam.

“I’m a little bit tired after that,” smiled Queiroz. “It was intense, it was enthusiastic, it was played in a good spirit.”

Iran welcomed back Brighton’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh, last season’s Eredivisie top-scorer, from injury as they looked to go unbeaten for a 20th straight game at the group stage.

And in a physical first half played in deafening noise, Iran, Asia’s top-ranked side, were largely on top but couldn’t make their advantage count.

As the challenges flew in, Jahanbakhsh and Iraq’s Safaa Hadi both wiped away blood, and Iranian midfielder Saman Ghoddos was lucky not to see red for a stamp.

– ‘We’ll be ready’ –

Iran’s Sardar Azmoun came close with a header, Ghoddos saw a powerful drive deflected away and Jahanbakhsh fizzed one over on the rebound. Iran also strongly claimed a penalty when Hadi handled accidentally.

At the other end, Ahmed Yasin’s low shot was just off target and 18-year-old forward Mohanad Ali, scorer of a brilliant solo goal against Yemen, glanced a header wide.

Jahanbakhsh withdrew just after the hour-mark and Iraq’s Ali followed shortly afterwards, following a final attempt which the teenager drove straight down the throat of goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

It looked like both sides were happy to settle for a draw before Iraq’s Humam Tariq swung a cross to substitute forward Alaa Abbas, whose header was acrobatically palmed away by Beiranvand.

However, clear-cut chances were scant in the second half as the former war-time foes saved their energies for the bigger challenges to come in the knockout phase.

In the round of 16, Iran will play one of the third-placed teams while Iraq, the 2007 champions, are lined up to face either Qatar or three-time winners Saudi Arabia.

“It doesn’t matter who we play, Qatar or Saudi Arabia — we’ll be ready,” said Iraq coach Srecko Katanec.

Vietnam finished third in the group as they eased past war-torn Yemen 2-0 for their first points, after a brilliant Nguyen Quang Hai free-kick and a penalty from Que Ngoc Hai.