In a tense encounter at the Franso Harriri Stadium, league leaders Al-Shurta snatched a 1-0 victory over reigning Iraqi champions Arbil, thanks to a second half strike from their captain Nashat Akram. The win keeps the Baghdad based club four points clear at the top of the league and on course for a third league title.
Over the past seasons, games between Arbil and clubs from down south have been volatile affairs, both on and off the field, but match referee Sabah Abid kept the lid firmly on the pressure cooker.
Al-Shurta came to the Franso Hariri Stadium as league leaders, and from early on it seemed that their coach Thair Jassam had set up his team to defend and try to grab a point. The current league champions Arbil, with two games in hand, trailed the clubs at the top of the table and needed a victory to appease their trophy hungry fans, who have become accustomed to winning over the last few years, after their dismal 3-0 defeat at the hands of Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya a week ago.
The sound of the trumpets bellowed throughout the stadium, Kurdish flags and the club colours of yellow and blue were flown while the unrelenting chants of the home fans got louder, as the arena began to fill up during the first half. With the home fans urging their team on, Arbil gradually began to dominate possession and take the game to Al-Shurta.
However the home side’s two playmakers, Hulgard Mulla Mohammed and Nabil Sabah were unable to carve out an opening for strikers Loay Salah and Amjad Radhi. It was the same story in the second half, with the contribution of Arbil’s top scorer Amjad non-existent. He did come close on 78 minutes but fired over from six yards.
Their best chance came on 28 minutes, when Hulgard’s right wing cross-cum-shot was pushed over the crossbar by custodian Mohammed Hamed, who was injured in the process.
Al-Shurta’s talisman and captain Nashat came to life in the last fifteen minutes of the first half and was at the heart of the visitor’s best moments, confidently spreading the ball around the field to his team-mates.
He was involved in an altercation with Saad Abdul-Amir, which caused the local fans to chant “Chees, Chees, Nashat”, to deride the Al-Shurta captain. One of the biggest cheers came, when Nashat was booked moments later. But he would have the last laugh.
The pantomime villain became central to Al-Shurta’s game plan, when their main attacking threat, centre forward Jean Michel N’lend, was substituted for left sided player Dhargham Ismail.
The 6ft 3 inches tall Cameroonian looked displeased with his coach’s decision to pull him off so early in the match, shaking his head in disgust, his captain had to have a quick word in his ear to encourage him to get off the field.
Nigerian Buba moved into N’lend position to spearhead the attack, and seconds after the change, the impressive Amjad Kelaf crossed into the box for Buba to score, however Arbil’s defence were able to clear the ball from danger.
The home fans sensed a goal but unfortunately for them, it came at the wrong end, with Nashat’s deft finish on 66 minutes giving the visitors the lead.
The 32-year-old delightfully sided footed Dhargham Ismail’s square-ball from the left wing, which the home keeper got a hand to but was unable to keep out.
In an attempt to get back into the match, Arbil’s Croatian coach Rodion Gačanin threw on Hawar Mulla Mohammed for his debut to the joy of the fans. The home faithful all stood to attention, to witness the player, wearing the No.26 jersey, make his long awaited debut for the club.
The player, who had recently married, had only received his ITC card a week earlier after his seemingly never-ending dispute with his former Iranian club Zobahan had been resolved.
Hawar was handed the captaincy but his only contribution was a bicycle kick on 71 minutes that went high and wide, however the attempt was given a big roar by the gratified fans. He later went closer with a free-kick on 83 minutes.
Al-Shurta’s coach Thair Jassam made changes, and the team went to a 5-4-1 formation to try and keep the home side at bay – leaving only Nashat up on his own.
The Emperors of the north, looking increasingly fatigued as the game wore on in the latter stages, desperately searched for an equaliser, and were offered a lifeline when the fourth official indicated six minutes of injury time, however it was Al-Shurta, who held on and claimed the victory and the three points.
Al-Shurta top the Iraqi league with 41 points after 19 games, ahead of Duhok, who beat Kirkuk 4-0, on 37 points and third placed Al-Zawraa on 34 points. Arbil, who have two games in hand against Zakho and Al-Minaa, stay in fifth position on 31 points.
Arbil: 22 Jalal Hassan; 3 Hardi Saimand, 2 Aleksandar Kosorić (16 Miran Khosro 71’), 23 Kosrat Baiz Ali, 14 Ivan Bukanya; 32 Nadim Sabagh (6 Mahdi Karim 56’), 25 Saad Abdul-Amir, 17 Nabil Sabah (15 Miran Karim 84’), 7 Hulgard Mulla Mohammed; 10 Amjad Radhi, 11 Loay Salah [c] (26 Hawar Mulla Mohammed 68’).
Al-Shurta: 23 Mohammed Hamed; 33 Paul Koulibaly, 25 Walid Salim (6 Qasim Zaidan 61’), 32 Ali Mohammed Alialah, 19 Ahmed Ayad; 5 Hussein Abdul-Wahid, 22 Innocent Félix Awoa Zoa, 15 Nashat Akram [c], 14 Amjad Kelaf (30 Ali Rahim 94’), 13 Minusu Buba (35 Ahmed Fadhil 67’); 21 Jean Michel N’Lend (3 Dhargham Ismail 52’).
Referee: Sabah Abid
Linesman: Jalil Al-Saifi & Ali Zaidan
Cautions: Jean Michel N’Lend 31’, Hulgard Mulla Mohammed 43’, Nashat Akram 63’, Hussein Abdul-Wahid 73’.