Iraq, shaping-up for a make or break month of World Cup qualifying matches, were surprisingly beaten 1-0 by West African side Liberia, in a friendly match played on Monday, at a half-filled Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad, that was rocked by two explosions outside the ground.
The winner came four minutes into the second half through Marcus Macauley, after the Liberians had weathered a first half onslaught on their goal. The game was Iraq’s only warm-up game before they take on Oman, Australia and Japan, in the World Cup qualifiers next month. The Iraqi team’s preparations have been something of a contentious subject.
After friendly matches with Mauritania, Gambia, Central African Republic, Yemen, and Iran were shelved at short notice– blamed on the sluggish work of the feckless Iraqi football authorities – the sole warm-up match that was organised before their three crucial World Cup qualifying matches next month, came against a weakened Liberian side, which their local press even dubbed as the ‘understudy’ team.
Not the kind of opponents, Iraq’s Serbian coach Vladimir Petrović had wished for, to test his men, before the team’s first World Cup qualifier with Oman in Muscat on June 4.
A jet-lagged Liberia had, finally, flown into Baghdad Airport, on Sunday afternoon, on a Kenya Airways plane via Accra and Turkey, and were, on their tight schedule, able to fit-in a brief training session at the Al-Shaab Stadium on the same evening. The hastily arranged friendly, that had been originally scheduled to be played on May 24, before it was moved to the following day, and then rearranged for May 27, after the Liberian FA informed the Iraqis that they would be delayed for two days because of complications with visa and travel arrangements.
Another issue was that the match was not played on a FIFA match day, making Liberia’s top foreign based professionals unavailable for the clash, the only two that made it, were Alex Karmo plying his trade in Laos and Herron Berrian in the Cypriot league.
Petrović had three foreign based players – captain Younis Mahmoud, Salam Shaker and Ahmed Ibrahim – absent for the tie, but was able to call on the services of Ali Rahema of Qatari club Al-Wakra and give a start to veteran maestro Nashat Akram, his first game after reversing his decision to retire from international football.
The U-turn from the 28-year-old midfielder, who has 111 appearances for Asood Al-Rafidain after making his debut in 2001 at the age of just 17, came about after clear the air talks with the Serbian coach, who since taking charge of the side, has been searching for a playmaker to play in the centre, to link the rest of the side, much like a spider in the middle of a web.
Al-Shurta’s Nashat, is the best player in the Iraqi league for that very position, which was why Petrović turned to the man the Iraqi faithful call Al-Musikar (“The Musician”). Though Nashat is more akin to an orchestral conductor, setting the tempo, shaping and creating the chances for his team-mates and unifying the team.
However these days, the former golden boy of Iraqi football, is a shadow of his old self, much slower and looking slightly few pounds heavier, and though, his passport states otherwise, some claim that the player is, actually in his 32nd year of his life.
However his inclusion, maybe the spark that will re-ignite Iraq’s fading World Cup qualifying campaign.
Iraq’s Serbian coach, started with Nour Sabri, in goal, with a four man defence with Walid Salim at right back, Ali Adnan at left back, and Ali Rahema and Ali Bahjat in centre of the defence.
The midfield centred around Nashat – with Khaldoun and Saad Abdul-Amir on each of his side, with Humam Tariq on the left, Alaa Abdul-Zahra on the right, and Mustafa Karim, spearheading the attack.
The Iraq FA decided to kick off the game at 16:00 local time, the same time that their qualifying game with Oman will be played, but the lack of advertisement from the football authorities on the date of the game and with temperatures at 42 Celsius, many Iraqi fans stayed away.
Nashat pulled the strings for the home side, and on 11 minutes almost put the lively Alaa Abdul-Zahra clean through on goal, with a beautiful pass with the outside of his right foot, before Mustafa Karim missed the first of many first half chances four minutes later, after another pass from Nashat.
Iraq, with Nashat in a pivotal role, confidently passed the ball around the pitch, while the movement of Alaa and Mustafa in attack were a delight for the 15,000 fans that turned up to watch.
The Africains looked to their front pairing on the counter, with the Iraqi defence at times, unable to keep up with the pace of Abel Burmah and Herron Berrian.
Nashat had a chance on 22 minutes, when Abraham Barshall’s clearing defensive header, landed at his feet, but he could only find the side netting. Then, the Iraqi captain turned provider with a deft flick with the outside of his right foot, finding Mustafa Karim in the box, but he was unable to connect. It came seconds after Saad Abdul-Amir had put the Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya striker through on goal, only for the Iraqi forward to stumble in the box under the pressure of Liberia captain Solomon Wisseh.
Iraq were now taking pot shots at the Liberian goal, and the sparse but boisterous crowd were sensing a goal for the home side, but they continued to miss, chance after chance, with Mustafa Karim the main culprit, with one of his missed efforts, even bringing his despairing Serbian coach onto his feet.
It was clear that Nashat had been given the freedom of the park, protected by two holding midfielders Saad and Khaldoun, and as the game went on, he moved further and further up field. The last chance came from a free-kick from the Iraqi captain, and it brought a save from the opposing keeper .
At start of the second half, Petrović made three changes, bringing on Saif Salman, Osama Ali, and Amjad Radhi for Khaldoun, Saad Abdul-Amir and Mustafa Karim, but after Iraq had dominated the first period, it was the visitors that took the lead on 49 minutes, Ali Bahjat was shrugged off the ball by Abel Burmah, and he squared the ball to Marcus Macauley.
The Monrovia Club Breweries player side-footed the ball into the bottom left hand corner of the net, beating the Iraqi keeper.
Three minutes later, Iraq had their best chance of the game, when Ali Adnan, who created many Iraq’s chances from the left, crossed into the penalty box, there Nashat in a tussle of two captains, got the better of Solomon Wisseh, but his venomous shot from 12 yards was saved point-blank by the man of the match, Nathaniel Sherman.
Iraq having wasted a hatfull of chances, threw on wingers, Hulgard Mulla Mohammed and Haidar Sabah, but continued to miss chances, with Ali Adnan, once again, the instigator, finding Amjad Radhi in the box, but his header was easily saved by Sherman. A minute later, Herron Berrian put the ball over the bar from just over six yards, after connecting to a Marcus Macauley cross.
The home fans and their players, who had 19 goal attempts on the day – sensed it was not going to be their day when a minute after Amjad’s goalbound chip was headed off the line and out of danger by the lofty Alex Karmo on 74 minutes, Nashat somehow put the ball the wrong side of the post, after Hulgard’s mazy run on the by-line had created the opportunity.
Liberia, under their enigmatic coach Frank “Jericho” Nagbe, seen smoking on the bench in the latter stages of the game, were solid and compact, and defended resolutely in the six minutes of injury time that was added on by the Syrian referee Shadi Asfour, to claim the victory over the Iraqis in Baghdad.
Iraq 0-1 Liberia
Marcus Macauley 49
IRAQ: 22 Nour Sabri; 23 Walid Salim (19 Hulgard Mulla Mohammed 58’), 3 Ali Bahjat, 15 Ali Rahema, 6 Ali Adnan; 4 Khaldoun Ibrahim (14 Osama Ali 46’), 21 Saad Abdul-Amir (8 Saif Salman 46’), 11 Humam Tariq (13 Haidar Sabah 66’), 5 Nashat Akram [c], 17 Alaa Abdul-Zahra, 9 Mustafa Karim (18 Amjad Radhi 46; 16 Mohanad Abdul-Rahim 78’)
COACH: Vladimir Petrović (Serbia)
LIBERIA: 1 Nathaniel Sherman; 2 Marcus Macauley, 5 Solomon Wisseh [c], 13 Alex Karmo, 12 Trokon Zeon (23 Francis Jaballah 81’); 4 Eddie Wulue (15 Mohamed Varney 69’), 6 Abraham Barshall (19 Myers Garlo 88’), 7 Sam Koliie (21 Alvin Macconel 83’), 11 Aloysius Syumujila; 8 Herron Berrian, 22 Abel Burmah (17 Samuel Thompson 89’)
COACH: Frank Wontee “Jericho” Nagbe
Referee: Shadi Asfour (Syria)
Linesmen: Anas Subeh (Syria) & Hussam Al-Hamad Al-Frih (Syria)
Fourth Official: Falah Abid (Iraq)
Cautions: Abraham Barshall 79’, Myers Garlo 90’ (+5)