Asian Cup 2015: Iraq are no outsiders in tough Group D
Pessimists would say Iraq have been destabilised at a crucial time, finishing last in their Gulf Cup of Nations group and sacking coach Hakeem Shaker just weeks before the 2015 Asian Cup kicks off in Australia.
However, the move could be seen as daring rather than last ditch. The Gulf Cup was a trial run and the Lions of Mesopotamia will benefit from ‘new boss syndrome’ as they head Down Under for this continental competition.
The Iraq squad can now enjoy are fresh start, with November’s woes placed behind them thanks to Qatar Sports Club, who have loaned them the services of coach Radhi Shenaishel.
A Lions of Mesopotamia legend, Sheniashel, who briefly managed his nation before, should provide an inspiring lift.
Sheniashel’s mission will be to mould his young squad into a competitive force again, with their last triumph in this tournament coming in 2007. Iraq enjoyed an exciting run which included wins over Saudi Arabia and Australia, on the road to lifting the top trophy.
The Lions of Mesopotamia reached the quarter-finals last time out in the Asian Cup, and should be able to push group favourites Japan and Jordan all the way, with hopes of facing bitter rivals Kuwait or Iran in the later rounds.
Justin Meram, an MLS winger currently representing Columbus Crew, is an intriguing recent call-up to the national squad, having grabbed eight goals and four assists for his club in the 2014 campaign.
The American-born midfielder is eligible for Sheniashel’s squad through his Iraq-born parents, but has more convincing to do before he is selected for the final cut, with his first caps arriving in the Gulf Cup disappointment.
It is young defender Ali Adnan that is Iraq’s brightest star, with the Baghdad-born left back dubbed “Asia’s Gareth Bale”.
Currently plying his trade in the Turkish Super Lig for Caykur Rizespor, 20-year-old Adnan already has around 30 caps for his nation and descends from prime footballing stock. Both his father and uncle played at a high level, with the latter, Ali Kadhim, considered to be one of Iraq’s best ever strikers.
Attack-minded Adnan was crowned Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2013, and will be aiming to enhance his profile further in Australia.
In a blow for the Lions, Sydney-based midfielder Ali Abas could miss the opportunity to represent his nation in his country of residence after being sidelined with injury.
Iraq do, however, have a number of players competing in Europe, including tricky wingman Ahmed Yasin Ghani, who plays for Swedish side Orebro, and Swindon Town star Yaser Kasim.
The former Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder, who spent a portion of his youth career with Tottenham, is still just 23 and has, so far, netted once in five caps.
Iraq’s main attacking burden may rest on the shoulders of veteran striker Younis Mahmoud, despite the 31-year-old frontman being currently without a club.
The Lions of Mesopotamia certainly have the tools to launch an Asian Cup challenge, but their future following the tournament may leave a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the campaign.