Qatar’s Gulf Cup campaign began on a sour note after the hosts went down to Iraq 1-2 in the opening match at the Khalifa International Stadium Tuesday.
Mohamed Qasem was the hero for Iraq as he stunned the packed 37,890 crowd with two goals in nine minutes in the first half. Abdelaziz Hatim brought Qatar back into the contest with a strike in the 49th minute, but Felix Sanchez’s men could not find the equaliser.
Watched by His Highness The Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who inaugurated the 24th edition of the tournament, Qatar started on a bright note.
Qatar’s Abdelkarim Hassan (centre) vies for the ball during the Gulf Cup match against Iraq
Qatar fans wave flags ahead of the match against Iraq
Qatar coach Felix Sanchez
However, they were guilty of wasting many chances. Iraq, on the other hand, were highly impressive, well organised and grabbed their chances. In fact they had to start the match with a second string XI, with coach Srecko Katanec choosing not to field any of the eight players who played for their club Al Shorta against Mauritanian side Nouadhibou in Arab Club Championship second round match on Monday.
While Iraq was second to Asian champions Qatar in quality on the pitch, they made up for it with their huge physical presence and big heart.
Qatar coach Sanchez was clearly disappointed with the result, but the Spaniard was optimistic his men would bounce back in the remaining two Group A matches against Yemen and the UAE.
“Of course no one wants to lose, especially in such a game like this. You are playing at home in front of your fans. And it’s the first game in the competition and we know that we are the champions of Asia. But it does not give you the three points before the start of the game. You need to play,” he said.
“What we can do is work hard in this strong group and ensure that we are stronger in the next game and take the points. I believe we deserved something from this game because of the chances we created. We tried but as I said we need to be better in the next game,” he added.
Sanchez had predicted a difficult match due to Iraq’s physically natured game and that’s what he got. “As I had said before, it was a difficult match. We have always found it difficult against Iraq and credit to them for the way they played today,” he said.
Things could have been different, though, for Qatar had Almoez Ali and Abdelkarim Hassan converted the chances they got. Almoez, who has failed to reach the heights of his Asian Cup high, had a bad day in the office.
On more than one occasion, he fluffed an opportunity to score. The striker’s, and also Qatar’s, biggest chance came in just the fourth minute, with the Duhail forward needing just Iraq goalkeeper Jalal Hasan to beat. But Almoez's strike was way off the mark. Hassan, who was a constant threat from the right flank, also had a great chance but could not find the side net.
In defence too, Qatar players struggled to find the rhythm, with Bassam al-Rawi’s blunder gifting Iraq the breakthrough in the 18th minute.
After an Iraq corner was cleared by goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, the ball landed into Qasem, who crossed the ball into the box, intending to find his teammates. But in a shocking case of misjudgment, al-Rawi chose not to intercept as the ball evaded two Iraqi players as a helpless al-Sheeb watched the ball slam the net.
Iraq doubled the lead in the 27th minute, but this time it was due to Qasem’s brilliance. The 22-year-old midfielder caught onto a loose ball from outside the box and struck a fierce left-footed which beat al-Sheen comfortably.
With their backs against the wall, Qatar went into the half-time with plenty to ponder. Sanchez made a change after the break, bringing in Hatim for Yusuf Abdrisag and the move paid dividends quickly. Just three minutes into the second half, Hatim capitalised on a mistake from Iraq defender Mostafa Mohamed to score from close range.
Having pulled a goal back and with home crowd behind them, Qatar came close to finding the equaliser many times, but the resilient Iraqi held on for a famous victory.
Now Qatar will turn their attention to Yemen on Friday, which is already a must-win affair for them if they are to keep their hope of a fourth title alive. Iraq, meanwhile, will have all their Al Shorta players ready to face the UAE on Friday.