Oman are in pole position to qualify for the World Cup after inflicting a 1-0 defeat on Iraq at the Sultan Qaboos Stadium in Muscat. The victory, thanks to a first-half injury-time header from Ismail Al-Ajmi , puts Oman in second in Group B on nine points, ahead of Australia, Jordan and Iraq, lying last with only five points.
Group leaders Japan, assured themselves of a place in Brazil, with a stoppage-time penalty in their 1-1 draw with Australia in Saitama earlier in the day.
The Omanis, backed by a vocal crowd, numbering at almost 30,000, were without injured captain and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi and the suspended Imad Al-Hosni in attack. To fill the void, Oman’s French coach Paul Le Guen had named Abdul-Aziz Al-Maqbali, while the young goalkeeper Faiz Al-Rashidi replaced Al-Habsi.
At the pre-match press conference, their coach had spoken highly of Al-Maqbali and Ismail Al-Ajmi, with both expected to take a more attacking role and operate alongside each other in Al-Hosni’s absence.
Iraq, started the day needing a victory to stand any chance of gaining the final World Cup spot in their group, and there were rumours prior to kick off, that forward Hamadi Ahmed would start instead of midfielder Muthanna Khalid, with the Serbian coach going out for an all-out attack, with an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation.
However holding midfielder Muthanna started alongside Saif Salman.
Petrović had set up his team in a slightly altered 4-2-3-1 formation, with Nashat Akram on the right, Humam Tariq on the left, and Alaa Abdul-Zahra behind the centre forward Younis Mahmoud.
But the Iraqi captain was isolated whenever Iraq did not have the ball, Humam, Alaa and Nashat would tuck-in into the centre of the field, to reinforce the midfield, whenever the team lost possession.
Iraq’s only real chance in the first half came on 39 minutes, from a long pass from the right which found Alaa free on the left but Oman’s Raad Ibrahim Salih was alert to the danger and was able to clear the ball for a corner.
The same Iraqi forward, had a good shout for a penalty, when he fell on the edge of the box, after an untidy push from Raad Ibrahim Salih – though the South Korean referee was having non of it and waved away the appeals.
After half an hour of the game gone, it was visible that the intense heat and humidity had an effect on the players, something that both coaches Vladimir Petrovic and Paul Le Guen had tried to play-down at the pre-match press conference, with the 22 players and even the referee stopping for a drink of water after a stoppage interrupted play.
The game gradually began to open up, and the home side promptly had two golden opportunities to open their account, with volleys from Ismail Al-Ajmi and Abdul-Aziz Al-Maqbali, both resulting from direct crosses from the right flank by Saad Suhail.
It looked as if both sets of players would return to their dressing rooms, with the game scoreless, but in the last seconds of the three minutes of injury time indicated by the fourth official, Oman won a corner.
From the resulting kick, the Iraqi keeper Nour Sabri in an error of judgement, was drawn off his goal-line in an attempt to win the ball in the air, but striker Ismail Al-Ajmi rose highest to head the Omanis into the lead.
The unfortunate Humam Tariq, standing on the line, tried to clear the ball, but could only stir it into the net. The referee immediately blew for half-time and Humam fell to the ground.
At the start of the second half, Petrović moved Nashat, having played on the right in the first half, to the centre, so he would see more of the ball, but even with the ball at the feet of the midfield maestro, Iraq were unable to carve out any clear openings.
Sensing that a change of shape was needed, a dejected Humam was replaced for Saad Abdul-Amir, while striker Mustafa Karim was brought on for Saif Salman.
But the Serbian’s substitutions did little to inject any optimism into team’s play, with many of the Iraqi players looking lost and glancing around the field for a touch of inspiration from anywhere, to get themselves back into the game and the World Cup.
The home supporters, with the minutes ticking away, were in jubilant mood and began chanting “Yes, we can,” adopting the election slogan of US president Barack Obama, believing that they could qualify for the World Cup in Brazil for the first time in their history.
Iraq knowing they needed a goal, threw caution to the wind, (even though there was no gust of wind at the stadium while temperatures soared as high as 40’C), with defenders Ahmed Ibrahim and Ali Rahema making marauding runs into the opposition’s half, however on 67 minutes, but with the Iraqis looking forward, keeping only Salam Shaker at the back, they were caught on the break from their own corner, however Nour Sabri was able to save Al-Ajmi’s goalbound effort.
In another counterattack, Oman’s young striker Abdul-Aziz Al-Maqbali should have made the game safe for Oman but shot wide on 78 minutes, and nine minutes later, in an almost identical position, the forward managed to shoot wide of the mark once more.
Iraq’s charismatic custodian Nour Sabri had to be at his best, to save from Eid Al-Farsi and then Raad Ibrahim Salih. For the second, he dived to his left to push the ball out for a corner. Aware that the game was getting away from his team, with the minutes counting down, he raced to retrieve the ball and placed it on the corner spot.
Iraq threw everyone forward, but even with an extra five minutes of injury-time, the only clear-cut chance they could muster, was when a diagonal ball from the left wing, found itself at the feet of sub Mustafa Karim in the box, he cut in but his weak effort was comfortably saved by Oman’s dependable keeper Faiz Al-Rashidi.
Iraq rooted to the bottom of the group, on five points have little chance of qualifying automatically, with two games left against Australia and Japan.
Oman 1-0 Iraq
Ismail Al-Ajmi 45 (+4)
OMAN: 18 Faiz Al-Rashidi; 2 Mohammed Salih Al-Musalami, 13 Abdul-Salam Amer, 17 Hassan Mudhafar Al-Gheilani [c], 6 Raad Ibrahim Salih, 8 Eid Al-Farsi (Ali Salim 90(+4)), 12 Ahmed Mubarak Al-Mahaijri, 10 Qasim Saeed Hardan (4 Ali Hilal Al-Jaberi 71’), 11 Saad Suhail Al-Mukhaini; 15 Ismail Al-Ajmi (Hassan Rabeaa Al-Hosni 88’), 9 Abdul-Aziz Mubarak Al-Maqbali.
COACH: Paul Le Guen (France)
IRAQ: 22 Nour Sabri; 2 Ahmed Ibrahim, 14 Salam Shaker, 15 Ali Hussein Rahema, 6 Ali Adnan; 20 Muthanna Khalid (18 Amjad Radhi 86’), 8 Saif Salman (9 Mustafa Karim 58), 11 Humam Tariq (21 Saad Abdul-Amir 54’), 5 Nashat Akram, 17 Alaa Abdul-Zahra, 10 Younis Mahmoud [c].
COACH: Vladimir Petrovic (Serbia)
Referee: Kim Dong-Jin (South Korea)
Linesmen: Jeong Hae-Sang (South Korea) & Yang Byoung-Eun (South Korea)
Fourth Official: Kim Jong-Hyeok (South Korea)
Cautions: Abdul-Salam Amer 36’, Faiz Al-Rashidi 82’, Hassan Mudhafar Al-Gheilani 83’, Nashat Akram 84’.