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Iraq v Iran: Realist Katanec with one eye on the Asian Cup and the other on the World Cup

While the Iraqi media and supporters demand victories and even challenge for the Asian Cup, Srećko Katanec has been the pragmatist very much like his own brand of football. The Slovenian is not a man who believes the hype, for him the facts on the ground are far more important and that has been his approach from the first day he took over. He told journalists at his first press conference that if the Iraq FA wanted instant results at the Asian Cup than they should have looked for another coach. Katanec is here for the long-run, his planning at Asian Cup is fundamental in how he has selected and set out his squad. The World Cup in 2022 is what he is looking at.

On the eve of the tournament, critics claimed he did not know his best starting eleven nor what formation he preferred, but this has been part of the Slovenian’s arsenal, the seemingly erratic changes from his opening game and switches and modifications in both personnel and formation has made Iraq unpredictable in how they will line-up. Katanec has not put together his best eleven but a squad of 23 players which allows him to make necessary changes in relation to the opposition or the events that occur in a game, whether wanting to play three at the back or three in attack or both. The coach has become the ‘Tinkerman’ and made almost fifty changes to his starting line-up since his first game against Kuwait in September. Even on the eve of their final group game with Iran, Katanec has been unpredictable, with news coming out of the team’s camp that the coach will make more changes and rest key players for the next round. No one can say with certainty who will start.

Iraq have reached the quarterfinals in the last six Asian Cup competitions and won the tournament in 2007 in Jakarta in dramatic style in the midst of war back home. But have failed miserably to qualify for a World Cup finals since 1986. This is why Katanec has been appointed by the Iraq Football Association and while the Iraqi sports media and even the fans believe Iraq should be going to the UAE to win the cup, Katanec has looked at the facts and returned with the view that Iraq, once a dominating force in the Asian game in the 1980s are “not Japan, Korea Republic or Iran.” The Slovenian has spoken about how some of the players will react to conditions and the experience of playing at the Asian Cup and wants the team to “grow up”, something that will benefit the coach for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

People will point out that Iraq has beaten Carlos Quieroz’s Iran on the last two occasions but the last victory came in 2017 in a friendly at the Azadi stadium played behind closed doors.

The friendly match won by a late penalty from Saad Abdul-Amir kicked off at 11am with no spectators or media allowed to watch the top secret match which was demanded by Carlos Queiroz. Even though both FIFA and the Iraq FA had considered the match to be a full international, the Iranian FA stated the match was a training match!

Iran’s coach Carlos Queiroz chastised the Iranian referee for failing to award three penalties for his team and that the Iranian fans were owed an apology from the referee! “The rumor and humor in camp was, “bring back Benjamin Williams,” the Portuguese coach retorted, as he referenced the 2015 Asian Cup encounter where the Iranians had a player sent off by the Australian referee before eventually bowing out on penalties.

In Iraq’s last victory Team Melli had only two foreign based players in their side, Qatari-based Morteza Pouraliganji and Pejman Montazeri. The rest of the team were a mixture of regulars and reserves with six appearing for the first time. Iran had eight foreign players missing including Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun because the game was not played on a FIFA match day. The match in the Asian Cup will be a very different affair and Katanec will know this.

The match in Dubai will be the 27th fixture between the two neighbouring nations. They have met six times in the Asian Cup, with four victories for Team Melli and with just one win for the Lions of Mesopotamia. The only draw came in Canberra in 2015 in an exciting 3-3 game which Iraq went onto win 7-6 on penalities. In total Iran have won 15 matches while Iraq have five wins. Six matches have ended in draws. The Lions have won each of the two matches which have gone into extra-time and penalties at the WAFF Championship in 2002 and the 2015 Asian Cup quarterfinal.

The top scorer in this fixture is Iranian’s legendary forward Ali Daei with four goals followed by Iran’s Hamid Shirzadeghan and Hussein Kalani with three.  Parviz Kozehkanani, Hassan Rowshan and Sardar Azmoun (Iran) and Younis Mahmoud (Iraq) with two goals.

Despite Iraq’s poor record against Iran, these matches have the feeling and atmosphere of a local derby, nerves and the occasion can get to players just like they did in Canberra four years ago, anything is possible.