Iraq’s coach Srečko Katanec surprisingly named only three strikers in his 23-man squad for the upcoming 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE after an injury to the Iraqi league top scorer Mohammed Dawud. Eleven players survive from the Iraqi side which reached the semi-finals four years ago in Australia.
The list had been sent to the Asian Cup Organising Committee on the morning of Christmas Day and had been expected to be released after the team’s final warm-up match with Palestine on December 28.
During the team’s training camp in Doha where they played China and Palestine, the Iraqi coach had more or less named his final selection after narrowing it down to 28 players, surprisingly dropping Brwa Nouri and Saad Abdul-Amir. Katanec had just one major decision to make, whether to select Ayman Hussein or Mohanad Abdul-Rahim.
The Tunisian-based Ayman has played no football over the last four months since his move to North African side CS Sfaxien, after his former employers Al-Naft refused to send his ITC clearance for the striker who had gone AWOL to force the transfer. But despite the good form of Mohanad Abdul-Rahim, with five goals in his last five Iraqi league matches for league champions Al-Zawraa, the Slovenian has gone with Ayman Hussein who has played just 45 minutes of football in four months.
The striker joins Al-Shurta’s Mohanad Ali, who has six goals in 11 internationals since making his debut a year ago, and the surprise inclusion of Al-Zawraa’s Alaa Abbas, who only recently made his debut against Palestine.
Injury has forced out Mohammed Dawud – the Iraqi League’s top scorer with 11 goals so far this season – which leaves Katanec with only three forwards in the squad.
The five players who miss out, are goalkeeper Mohammed Salih (Al-Karkh), defender Ahmed Abdul-Ridha and right-back Samih Saeed (both of Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya), striker Mohanad Abdul-Rahim (Al-Zawraa) and Mohammed Dawud of Al-Naft.
There has been a lot of speculation over how Katanec will line-up at the Asian Cup in the UAE and the Slovenian has chopped and changed both personnel and formations in each of six of his matches since he took over in September, switching from 4-1-4-1 to 5-2-1-2, 3-4-3, 4-5-1 and 4-3-3. Katanec is expected to play a lone forward in the shape of Mohanad Ali or Ayman Hussein and have two wide-men in support.
In the friendly against Argentina, the Slovenian deployed Bashar Resan as a false number nine, with two wingers. His squad selections allows him to experiment depending on the opposition’s set-up. Several players in the squad such as Frans Dhia Putros, Bashar Resan, Hussein Ali, Ahmed Yasin, and Mohanad Ali have the ability to play in a variety of positions which will benefit the Iraqi coach during the tournament.
Katanec has spoken about the importance of a strong and compact defence and that is where the Slovenian will build on, his bold statement in Doha to Iraqi journalists that “without a defence, nobody wins” is his philosophy citing the World Cup champions France as an example. The coach who spent several years playing in the Bundesliga and Serie A is known for his pragmatic approach and getting Iraq to become a difficult team to beat will be his first task.
28 players were selected for Iraq’s final training camp in Doha however on the eve of their departure from Baghdad, defender Ali Faiz was in hospital for two days suffering from food poisoning while Amjad Atwan and Mohanad Abdul-Rahim were left behind in Baghdad because of visa problems and Alaa Mahawi was stopped at the airport. A fifth player Portuguese-based Osama Rashid of Primeira Liga side CD Santa Clara joined up after the Iraq FA threatened to report his club to FIFA for failing in releasing the midfielder 14 days prior to the start of the Asian Cup. Only from Boxing Day did the Slovenian have a complete squad of players to work with.
On the eve of the finals in the UAE, the Slovenian coach lost the services of defender Mustafa Nadhim and MLS-based Justin Meram, who both had surgery recently after suffering injuries.
Another notable absentee is Yaser Kasim, one of Iraq’s star performers four years ago in Australia. However the midfielder looks to have fallen off the footballing map after 2015 Asian Cup. He was recalled by Katanec on his appointment and the Northampton Town player sat on the bench in the Slovenian’s first match against Kuwait. However with Yaser not having featured in his club’s first team for more than a year, the talented maestro did not feature in the Slovenian’s plans.
Team captain Saad Abdul-Amir was dropped after an injury which occurred prior to Iraq’s friendly with Argentina last October and despite the midfielder declaring himself fit a few weeks ago after his return to first team football in the Iraqi league, Katanec believed he had match-fit replacements in the shape of Safaa Hadi and Osama Rashid.
There had been suggestions that the Iraqi captain was omitted as the Slovenian wanted to name Ali Adnan his captain despite being down the pecking order behind Jalal Hassan, Ahmed Ibrahim and Ahmed Yasin and allow the Serie A based defender a smooth accession without any obstacles in the shape of the experienced Saad Abdul-Amir to object.
There had been rumours in the Iraqi camp from the first day the Slovenian took charge, that the Atalanta left back had spoken to Katanec about the captaincy and the Iraqi sports media even claimed the Iraqi coach did not want a goalkeeper as his captain and instead preferred an outfield player. That theory looks to be wrong, as in the warm-up friendly with China, goalkeepers Mohammed Kasid and Jalal Hassan, the two most experienced players in the squad both captained the side in Doha. Katanec has played down the whole captaincy saga and brushed it aside, telling the media that it isn’t important to him who the captain is. For him, the omission of Saad Abdul-Amir was based purely on form and match fitness.
Katanec’s squad has Asian Cup pedigree, with eleven of the 23 having been part of Iraq’s squad which reached the semi-finals four years ago in Australia while veteran Mohammed Kasid was on the bench during Iraq’s historic victory in 2007. The goalkeeper also played at the 2011 Asian Cup along with defender Ahmed Ibrahim where Iraq reached the quarter-finals.
Ten play their football abroad including two in Europe. Danish-born defender Frans Dhia Putros, a former Danish youth international, plays in the Danish Superliga with Hobro IK while Osama Rashid is having an impressive first season in the Portuguese Primeira Liga with newly promoted CD Santa Clara. The former Netherlands youth international has so far scored five and assisted six goals in his 14 matches for Os Açoreanos who currently lie eighth in Portugal’s top flight.
For the first time since 2000, the Iraqi side will go into the Asian Cup without talisman Younis Mahmoud in their team. The legendary striker is the only player in the competition’s history to score at four different Asian Cup tournaments, heading the winner in the final in 2007.
2019 Asian Cup squad
GOALKEEPERS: 1 Jalal Hassan (Al-Zawraa), 12 Mohammed Kasid (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya), 20 Mohammed Hamed (Al-Shurta)
DEFENDERS: 2 Ahmed Ibrahim (Al-Arabi SC, Qatar), 3 Frans Dhia Putros (Hobro IK, Denmark), 4 Saad Natiq (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya), 5 Ali Faiz (Al-Kharaitiyat, Qatar), 6 Ali Adnan (Atalanta BC, Italy), 22 Rebin Sulaka (Al-Khor, Qatar), 23 Walid Salim (Al-Shurta), 17 Alaa Mahawi (Al-Shurta)
MIDFIELDERS: 9 Ahmed Yasin (Al-Khor, Qatar), 8 Osama Rashid (CD Santa Clara, Portugal), 11 Humam Tariq (Esteghlal Tehran, Iran), 13 Bashar Resan (Persepolis, Iran), 7 Safaa Hadi (Al-Zawraa), 19 Mahdi Kamil (Al-Shurta), 14 Amjad Atwan (Al-Shurta), 16 Hussein Ali (Nadi Qatar, Qatar), 15 Ali Husni (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya)
FORWARDS: 18 Ayman Hussein (CS Sfaxien), 10 Mohanad Ali (Al-Shurta), 21 Alaa Abbas (Al-Zawraa)