Yoshiro Moriyama seemed perplexed. His team should have won easily. Only, they didn't. As darkness slowly crept on Goa's GMC Stadium after Japan's 2-4 semi-final defeat to Iraq in the AFC U-16 Championships, the shadows on Moriyama's face grew bigger.
His side had come into the semi-final having scored 22 goals in four matches while conceding none. Iraq, on the other hand, had spluttered to the second spot in their group after winning just one match while drawing the remaining two. Even more incredulously, Moriyama's side had 61 percent of the ball in the semi-final. Yet, they had ended up losing 2-4.
How Iraq stunned Japan:
At the post-match press conference, even as he was restrained in his assessment of his own players, on being asked about Iraq, Moriyama called them "one of the best teams of this generation".
The fact that Iraq went on to win the AFC U-16 Championship will further underline that praise. Iraq have previously competed at the U-17 World Cup just once, back in 2013. However, they had a forgettable experience at that edition, hosted by UAE, after losing all three of their group matches.
This time around, the Iraqi outfit has been a pragmatic unit. While many of the teams at the AFC U-16 Championship tried to build their attacks with crisp passing and patient build-up, Iraq's preferred medium of attack was the long diagonal pass behind the rival team's defence to the tournament’s leading goal-scorer, Mohammed Dawood. Dawood, who scored a hat-trick in that semi-final against Japan, is a strong and pacy striker, who excels in one-on-one situations and is an exceptional finisher.
His movement inside the box in particular drew praise in the AFC U-16 Championship's technical report, co-authored by the AFC technical team comprising of Iran's Morteza Mohases, Jose Ariston Caslib of Philippines and AFC Technical Director, Andy Roxburgh.
The importance of Dawood:
What is also critical for Iraq is Dawood's interplay with midfielders like Saif Shayyal, a box-to-box player, and Al-Elayawi, who is as good, if not better, at one-on-one situations as Dawood.
The AFC technical report added that the Iraqi team like to play a 4-4-2 formation where "the wide midfielders squeezed diagonally into the defensive block" and that the team's gameplans are based on composed defensive efficiency" where even the "front players are willing to work as the first line of defence." At the AFC U-16 Championship, Iraq deployed a mix of zonal and man-to-man marking in their defensive third. Despite temperatures reaching 24 to 30 degree Celsius, the team likes to press the opponents high up the pitch, a factor which coach Qahtan Chiteer maintained after their win over Japan in the semi-final at the U-16 Championship was key to them winning.
Incredibly, out of the 10 goals that Iraq scored in their six matches, five came from the penalty spot.
Having won the title at Goa, Iraq coach Qahtan Chitheer was asked for his assessment of his side. “The key match for us was the first one against Korea Republic. After that we recovered very well and gradually got better as the tournament went on"
Not one to sit on his laurels, Chitheer fired a fresh salvo as a parting shot. “We will now look to improve even further before coming back to India for the World Cup next year.”
It will, of course, be easier said than done. Iraq are, after all, drawn in a tough group comprising England, who finished second in the UEFA U-17 Championship, Mexico, the CONCACAF champions, and Chile, who finished second in their South American U-17 Championships.
For now at least, their rivals have shown them plenty of respect.
Chile coach Hernan Caputto, who was present in Mumbai for the draw on Friday, admitted that all teams in his group will be formidable opponents when the tournament begins on 6 October.
"We are grouped with a very tough team like Mexico. Other countries like Iraq and England are equally strong. We know we have the potential but we need to speed up a little. Our team is going to prepare well for the tournament. Also, before coming to India, we might play friendly matches against England and Iraq in Europe to get used to the conditions," Caputto told reporters on Friday.
With only the top two teams from each group guaranteed a spot in the last-16 — the four best third placed teams will also make it through — it remains to be seen how far Iraq can make it with their pragmatic football. But, like Japan coach Moriyama said, Iraq do have "one of the best teams of this generation".
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 15:41 PM