Asian Cup quarter final preview: Iran v Iraq
Iraq hasn't beaten Iran in two decades, their last victory coming in the 1996 Asian Cup. The two bordering Middle Eastern countries played a warm up match in early January with Iran running out 1-0 winners.
This fixture has a reputation as a great rivalry and interest in it has been heightened since the two met less than three weeks ago. Iraqi midfielder Yaser Kasim believes the recent meeting has given them an advantage, allowing them an early look at Iraq’s system. Kasim is confident they have found the solution to breaking down the wall of white that will meet them at Canberra Stadium.
Iran won all three games of the group stage despite having less possession on all three occasions. They achieved this through an impressive defensive structure and some great set piece play. Iraq, on the other hand, like to dominate possession and keep the ball while finding a space to exploit, a strategy not unlike that of the UAE who failed to get a shot on target against Iran. Iraq will need a special sort of strategy if they hope to overcome Iran’s defensive block.
Iran have a huge opportunity to advance past the quarter finals, something they have failed to do at the Asian Cup in over a decade. Carlos Queiroz has the team playing a coherent style of football, and they are executing his strategy to a tee. It is hard to overstate the importance of a team who believe in their coach and each other; the Iranians are going to give everything they have on the field. It doesn't hurt that they are also a capable footballing team enjoying their best generation in over a decade.
All of Iraq’s 3 goals in the tournament have come in the second half. Their key objective will be to get an early goal before Iran settle down and find some rhythm. If Iraq can find an early breakthrough they can then sit deep and focus on defending set pieces well. If they execute this plan perfectly, they are a good chance of causing an upset.
The big issue
What have Iraq got up their sleeve? Yaser Kasim is confident that they can overcome a conservative Iranian team, but to do so they must attack with pace and power. The key to unlocking the structured, and by now confident Irani defence, is through a quick transition from back to front and a varied, balanced style of attack.
Iran’s attackers have showed glimpses of their class but are yet to totally dominate opposing defences. It may be time for Queiroz to allow Team Melli to play some football and unleash the likes of Ashkan Dejagah, Reza Goochenejhad and Sardar Azmoun. If Iran decide to do so they could catch Iraq off guard and win the game early with a few quick goals. It is then easy to revert back to their conservative strategy and absorb everything Iraq throws at them.
Prediction: Iran 2-1 Iraq