Iraq confident ahead of Socceroo challenge
Following their fierce introduction into Asia's showpiece quadrennial event against Oman last Sunday, Australia has been warned they can expect no favours when they come up against Iraq tomorrow.
BANGKOK: Following their fierce introduction into Asia's showpiece quadrennial event against Oman last Sunday, Australia has been warned they can expect no favours when they come up against Iraq tomorrow.
On paper, Iraq should provide the Socceroos with their sternest Group A test - a sobering thought given the torrid introduction offered to Australia by Oman on match day two.
Iraq's opening day draw with group minnows Thailand, who are ranked 124th in the world by FIFA, has failed to dampen Iraqi spirits ahead of their clash with one of the tournament favourites.
Australia, along with fellow Asian Cup heavyweights Japan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Korea Republic have failed to deliver wins from the first round of matches, and hopes of an upset at the Rajamangala National Stadium tomorrow are rife in the Iraqi camp.
"We have great respect for the Australian side, we were surprised at how they played against Oman as they are a team full of professional players who are with clubs in Europe," said Iraqi midfield lynchpin Saleh Sader, one of Iraq's game breakers and a virtual veteran at 24-years-old with 36 international caps and 11 goals to his name.
"But this is football and although they made a lot of mistakes there is no way we will ever underestimate them.
"They are very good team as they proved at the last World Cup in Germany, but we are not afraid and although we know it will be difficult the whole Iraqi team is confident."
Perennial quarter-finalists at the Asian Cup, Iraq-s well-documented preparations, or lack thereof, are unlikely to hinder the tenacity and willpower of one of Asia-s powerhouse football nations - particularly given this current crop of players are widely considered to be Iraq's golden generation.
Certainly, Iraqi youngsters playing at home at present have been very much adversely affected by the situation in the middle east.
However, this current senior line up, where all but two players are aged under 26, were allocated far greater resources for their youth development than any other nation in Asia during the time that Iraq was under the rule of former President Saddam Hussein, whose son Uday ran rule over the Iraqi FA.
Not surprisingly, several members of Iraq's Asian Cup squad were largely to thank for Iraq's stunning achievements at the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece.
Australian football fans will remember Iraq's representation at this tournament, in particular the contribution of talisman Emad Mohammed - his spectacular second half overhead kick against Australia at the quarter final stage ending Australia-s participation and continuing Iraq's fairytale run to the final four.
Somewhat fortunately for the Socceroos, Emad has been left out of Iraq's squad in Thailand, having been outspoken in his criticism of the Iraqi FA prior to the tournament.
One year later, Iraq, again led by their all-star cast, were perhaps unfortunate to suffer a 2-1 defeat to the Socceroos at Telstra Stadium prior to the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup.
The Iraqi side that drew with hosts Thailand 1-1 last Saturday featured several survivors from the aforementioned match, including midfielders Nashat Ali, Hawar Mohamed, Haitham Kadhum and Mahdi Kareem, as well as defensive lynchpin Haiedar Hassan.
One player who didn't face Australia two years ago is striker and current captain Younis Mahmoud - surely one of the most enigmatic marksmen at these championships.
Younis was on target against Thailand in the tournament opener, and looms as one of the biggest threats to what has been an inconsistent Socceroo back line of late.
Younis has netted twice as many international goals than any of his current team mates, 25, which is an average of more than one goal per two games.
Billed as Australia's toughest group opponents prior to these championships, Iraq's form of late has been less than convincing, with the Assood Al Rafidain (Lions of the Two Rivers) winning only three of their past twelve matches.
Regardless, Graham Arnold's charges can expect a torrid test from the Iraqis, whose proud, if unflattering Asian Cup record is very much on the line tomorrow.
"With another 90 minutes under our belt, physically the team as a whole is going to feel better than we did in the first game," said Socceroo wingback Brett Emerton at team training yesterday.
"We haven't had too many games since coming off our off-season and I think we felt it in the first match, hopefully on Friday we will be better off having another 90 minutes under our belt and physically we'll be in better shape.
"Everyone expected us to stroll through this group but from day one we knew it was going to be difficult especially because of the conditions, maybe the first game was a major wake-up call for us and it came at the right time."
The Socceroos- Asian Cup campaign continues on Friday, 13 July against Iraq at Bangkok -s Rajamangala National Stadium. Kick off is at 5.20pm local time (8.20pm AEST).
Fox Sports will feature live and exclusive coverage of the match from 8pm AEST. Click here for the entire Fox Sports broadcast schedule.