The fourth day of the AFC Asian Cup has arrived and it was a fascinating & joyful one for Middle Eastern teams - Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The Iraqis have played against the rising power of South East Asia, Vietnam, at Zeyad Sports City Stadium, in what was a game between two of the youngest teams in the tournament and turned out to be a mega thriller. Srečko Katanec’s players were kept in uncertainty by their coach until the last few hours before kickoff regarding the first eleven when the Slovenian coach has announced the starting lineup with few surprising changes. Bashar Resan and Humam Tariq opened on the bench, and it caused the Lions of Mesopotamia some great stress.
Iraq opened the match with great pressure on the Vietnamese goal, but the Golden Stars went first on the scoreboard. An own goal by Ali Faez after lack of communication with his goalkeeper, Jalal Hachem made it 1-0 to the Suzuki Cup champions, after a great pass by Nguyen Quang Hai.
Iraq tied quickly, through the extremely talented Mohanad Ali. The 18 year old Al-Shorta’s forward went through two defenders in the counter-attack and nailed it in with style - 1-1. Mohanad is definitely a talent to watch in the tournament, and his debut appearance in Asia’s top stage was at a very high level. Katanec tried to change his false decision with the formation by throwing Bashar Resan to the field instead of Dhia Putros on the 37th minute.
The Iraqis couldn’t hold on to their lead for a long time, because the middle of their formation was all open - Nguyen Cong Phuong destroyed their defence and scored from inside of the box. It was 2-1 to Vietnam on halftime. Iraq looked extremely nervous, and it seemed like Katanec has lost the control and guidance of his side.
The change came only in the second half when Humam Tariq entered the match. The ‘Iraqi Messi’ made an immediate impact. Just two minutes after the substitution, he already fired the ball in after a tremendous counter-attack. Tariq did almost everything on the pitch, and most importantly - drove some ambition in the team’s captain - Ali Adnan.
In 2-2 it seemed that the match was a bit relaxing but then, came the 90th minute and Adnan’s moment. Iraq won a free kick in a dangerous position and Adnan, a free kick specialist, curled the ball home from 20 yards to seal a sensational victory for Iraq.
Adnan’s winning goal for Iraq in this match was the first winning goal in the final minute of regular time of an Asian Cup finals match since January 2015, when Iran's Reza Ghoochannejhad scored on 90 minutes to seal a victory against UAE (excluding extra-time goals).
Katanec couldn’t look at Adnan’s shot but celebrated in ecstasy when realized it went in. The coach has a lot to learn and change in the team, now that he knows the capabilities of his players in a situation of great pressure.
Iraq has now won five of their's last six Asian Cup group games (lost one), including their opening game in the last two tournaments. This match was a good indication for the Whites’ chances in Group D and made it clear that the final day of the group stage, with a game against Iran in Dubai, will probably determine who will qualify from the first spot.
In the second game of the night, Saudi Arabia played North Korea.
The Saudis, one of the main contenders to win the tournament, enjoyed an easy tryout of their tools, before the tests against Lebanon & Qatar.
Hatan Bahbri was a trouble for the Koreans down the left flank and his cross into the box in the 24th minute showed his threat, with a sliding Ali Hadi Albulayhi just failing to connect. Four minutes later, Bahbri did it on his own as he dribbled past DPR Korea’s Ri Il-jin and let loose a strike to open the scoring. 1-0 to the Saudis. The Green Falcons gained some confidence after the goal and doubled their lead in the 37th with an amazing back-heel goal by Mohammed Al Fatil.
DPR Korea suffered a red card when Han Kwang-song received a second yellow card for a tackle on Almoqahwi, just before halftime. On the 70th minute, Salem Aldawsari was left unmarked and the Saudi captain scored with coolness to make it 3-0. Al Dawsari's ended a sequence of 19 passes - the longest move seen for a goal in an Asian Cup match since January 2011 (Shinji Okazaki for Japan v Saudi Arabia - also 19 passes). Fahed Almuwallad added another goal and made 4-0 three minutes to the final whistle, what sealed Saudi Arabia's first opening Asian Cup match victory since 1996 when they emerged as champions.
This wasn’t a real test for the Saudis, who will wait for the sold-out match against Lebanon, that will be filled with Lebanese supporters, and the battle of all battles - against Qatar on the last day of the group stage. Goosebumps!