After 566 days of waiting, Iraq’s bid to qualify for their second FIFA World Cup finally gets back underway tomorrow!
The Lions of Mesopotamia were on a roll in late 2019, beating Iran on their way to top spot in Group C and continuing that strong form into the Arabian Gulf Cup by beating Qatar and the UAE. The pandemic then brought international football to a halt for almost an entire year, but Iraq have now played a number of friendly games since and have been able to maintain a record-breaking unbeaten run. There is a sense of cautious optimism among Iraqis heading into the qualifiers; Katanec has found stability in a squad that is producing the national team’s most consistent results for years, but with the margin of error so small in World Cup qualification, the Lions will be wary of the difficulty of the task that awaits them.
Iraq’s destiny in Group C is in their own hands having cemented top spot before the qualifiers were postponed. However, if the Lions drop points against Cambodia or Hong Kong, that would open up the chance for Bahrain and Iran to overtake them. If Iraq defeat both Cambodia and Hong Kong, the final game against Iran could become a head-to-head showdown for top spot in the group if Iran achieve maximum points from Bahrain and Cambodia. If Iraq do end up in second place, they would need to be among the five best group runners-up in order to advance to the next round of qualifiers. Safe to say, there is a lot that could change between now and next week!
Soccer Iraq on Twitter: “📆 Save the dates, Lions! 🦁Here’s our #AsianQualifiers schedule… 🇮🇶 pic.twitter.com/oyIwyfYKu4 / Twitter”
📆 Save the dates, Lions! 🦁Here’s our #AsianQualifiers schedule… 🇮🇶 pic.twitter.com/oyIwyfYKu4
Iraq have played seven friendly games in the ‘pandemic era’, earning four victories and three draws. The standout results have been two wins against Uzbekistan, including one away from home in front of a rapturous Uzbek crowd, representing Iraq’s first wins over Uzbekistan in 20 years. More recently, Iraq faced Tajikistan and Nepal, teams deemed to be similar in style and quality to their upcoming opponents Hong Kong and Cambodia. These two games were somewhat blighted by the absence of nine key players from Al-Shorta following a dispute between the club and the IFA, and Iraq were unable to score against a resolute Tajik defence. However, confidence was boosted with a six-goal victory over Nepal that saw the Lions extend their unbeaten run to 17 games.
Soccer Iraq on Twitter: “✅ Katanec’s Lions have gone 1️⃣7️⃣ games without losing, surpassing the unbeaten run achieved by #Iraq from 1979 to 1980![Stats 📊 @hassaninmubarak] pic.twitter.com/uAjo2fjqI3 / Twitter”
✅ Katanec’s Lions have gone 1️⃣7️⃣ games without losing, surpassing the unbeaten run achieved by #Iraq from 1979 to 1980![Stats 📊 @hassaninmubarak] pic.twitter.com/uAjo2fjqI3
Katanec’s squad selection for the qualifiers didn’t throw up many surprises, as the coach has largely found a squad he is comfortable with. Jalal Hassan will guard the net, while Ali Adnan and Alaa Mhawi should start as full-backs. The centre-back position is less clear-cut, with Rebin Sulaka absent from the squad, Ali Faez ruled out with COVID-19 and Saad Natiq missing for the first game due to suspension. Ahmed Ibrahim and Maitham Jabbar will likely start against Cambodia, while Saad Natiq will potentially be brought in as part of a back-three later on. Amjad Attwan and Safaa Hadi will protect the midfield while Bashar Resan and Mohanad Ali are almost guaranteed starters. That just leaves room for Humam Tariq, Ibrahim Bayesh, Mohammed Qasim and Hussein Ali to battle it out for the remaining places on the wing. Katanec may have a surprise or two up his sleeve though, with his experimentation of the ‘false nine’ system against Uzbekistan still fresh in the memory, and only time will tell what the Slovenian has in mind.
Players of the Iraq football team pose for a picture before a friendly football match between Iraq and the UAE at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai on November 12, 2021. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
Our squad depth
One of the most exciting aspects of Iraq’s current team is its strength in depth. Even with Alaa Abbas out due to injury, the ever-lively Mohammed Dawood remains an option from the bench, as does Iraqi League top scorer Aymen Hussein who can offer something different to both Mimi and Dawood up front with his strength and aerial ability. Ali Husni is finally back in the national team fold and has been impressive for Al-Shorta lately, while Dhurgham Ismail has also looked good for Al-Zawraa and can fill in for Ali Adnan if needed, especially as Alawi may be lacking in match fitness having been unable to play for his club due to visa issues. It’s certainly one of the most talented Iraqi squads in recent times, and with the team looking well-drilled by an experienced manager, there is no reason for Iraqis not to be optimistic.
Soccer Iraq on Twitter: “📄 Here it is!Our 26-man squad for the upcoming #AsianQualifiers- yalla, #Iraq! 🦁🇮🇶 pic.twitter.com/IPEj2NL7e0 / Twitter”
📄 Here it is!Our 26-man squad for the upcoming #AsianQualifiers- yalla, #Iraq! 🦁🇮🇶 pic.twitter.com/IPEj2NL7e0
Standing in Iraq’s way of a place in the final round of qualifying are Cambodia, Hong Kong and Iran. The weakest team in the group is Cambodia, having lost 14-0 to Iran and 8-0 to Bahrain already. Realistically, this should be a guaranteed victory for Iraq. Hong Kong will be a more difficult challenge, as they were able to hold Bahrain to a goalless draw and only lost by two-goal margins to Iraq and Iran, but the Lions are still favourites to walk away from that game with three points and must be able to do so if they have serious intentions of booking a World Cup spot. The third and final game will have the eyes of Asia fixated on it, as is always the case when Iraq and Iran meet. One of Asia’s greatest rivalries, Iraq have had the upper hand on Iran in recent years having eliminated them from the Asian Cup in 2015 and beating them in memorable fashion in 2019. However, despite some recent struggles, Iran are undoubtedly one of Asia’s top teams on their day with several well-known players in Europe and this game will be a real test of the progress that Iraq have made under Katanec. There is a chance that the winner of this game will top the group and therefore the pressure will be on for both sides.
Iraq’s midfielder Amjad Attwan marks Iran’s midfielder Omid Ebrahimi during the FIFA World Cup 2022 and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifying football match between Iraq and Iran in the Jordanian capital… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
Srečko Katanec has his detractors, but support for the boss in the media and among the fanbase seems to grow with each passing game. Katanec knows what it takes to qualify for a World Cup having taken his home country to the finals back in 2002, and has been able to instil a real team spirit in the Iraq squad by maintaining stability in his squad selections. Players such as Alaa Abbas and Safaa Hadi have been given a chance by Katanec and have become key players under his tenure, with both players moving to Europe, and the boss continues to experiment with new players from the league. Katanec has faced his fair share of criticism for omitting some of Iraq’s most experienced players such as Justin Meram and Saad Abdul-Amir but he has remained steadfast in not allowing others to interfere with his decisions which is refreshing to see. Of course, if the Lions make it past this group, the real test for Katanec will come in the final round of qualifiers where he will need to keep Iraq competitive against the likes of Japan, South Korea or Australia, something that several previous managers have failed to do.
Soccer Iraq on Twitter: “What position are we in our World Cup qualifying group, Katanec? 😉 pic.twitter.com/RgQ7KgcDwG / Twitter”
What position are we in our World Cup qualifying group, Katanec? 😉 pic.twitter.com/RgQ7KgcDwG
Our qualification chances
So, do Iraq have a realistic chance of qualifying for the World Cup? Asia have four automatic spots in the tournament, plus one more potential spot that would require further play-off games to obtain. Japan and South Korea are likely to take two of those spots, so if Iraq do reach the final round they could be competing with the likes of Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia for the remaining places. While Iraq have shown that they can compete with those sides in individual games, the problem for Iraq has always been about consistency across the full qualifying campaign, and we have often seen Iraq dropping points from winning positions or against other Gulf teams in the past. Encouragingly, Iraq have only lost four games from 35 under Katanec, three of which were against top opposition in Argentina, Tunisia and Qatar, and are on a lengthy unbeaten run which suggests that the team is now showing a good level of consistency, and this is what they need to carry on into the qualifiers.
Iraq may not be favourites to qualify, but there are certainly reasons to be optimistic. A talented squad, an experienced manager and a passionate fanbase – let’s go and achieve the unthinkable!
Finally, we couldn’t end this preview without mentioning that Iraq will be wearing these new eye-catching Umbro kits throughout the qualifiers!
Umbro on Twitter: “Presenting the Iraq home & away jerseys for 21/22 🇮🇶.Inspired by ancient Mesopotamian symbols that have represented this culture for many thousands of years.#Umbro #LionsOfMesopotamia pic.twitter.com/4wTqVC2ooU / Twitter”
Presenting the Iraq home & away jerseys for 21/22 🇮🇶.Inspired by ancient Mesopotamian symbols that have represented this culture for many thousands of years.#Umbro #LionsOfMesopotamia pic.twitter.com/4wTqVC2ooU