A double from Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud and a stunning strike from Ali Adnan cemented the 2007 Asian Cup winners place at next year’s finals in Australia after they leapfrogged Group C rivals China with a 3-1 victory in Sharjah.
The Sharjah stadium was at half its usual 20,000 capacity, with a large and vocal contingent of Iraqi fans, cheering their team on with every touch of the ball throughout the encounter
Hakim Shaker decided to start with Ahmed Ibrahim ahead of experienced Ali Hussein Rahema at the heart of the Iraqi defence, and gave a debut to Yaser Kasim in midfield alongside Saif Salman.
The midfielder from Swindon Town in League One in England put himself about in the first half and was walking a tightrope with a couple ill-timed challenges. However the young Lion in the number 23 jersey grew in confidence as the game wore on and was Iraq’s standout player in midfield.
China, who needed only a point to qualify as runners-up, had appointed a new coach in Frenchman Alain Perrin only six days before the clash, and were without Guangzhou Evergrande full-backs Sun Xiang and Zhang Linpeng due to suspension.
In a nervy and cagey opening in Sharjah, it was Hakim Shaker’s side that had the best goal opportunities, with Ali Adnan’s effort from outside the box that went just wide after Yang Hao’s bicycle kick to clear the ball a corner fell to the Çaykur Rizespor defender. Then Iraq’s unattached captain, Younis Mahmoud, without club since he left Saudi club Al-Ahly of Jeddah before the turn of the year, blasted high and over with a free kick.
Iraq opened the scoring on 23 minutes with a well-worked passing move started by debutante Yaser Kasim in centre, with a combination of seven slick passes involving Saif Salman, Ali Adnan and finally Mohanad Abdul-Rahim who released Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud, beating the offside trap, Al-Safah (“The Assassin”) with cut-throat precision coolly placed the ball to the left of keeper Yang Zhi.
The goal calmed the nerves of the Iraqi players and the delirious fans in the stands and brought the usual celebrations from Iraqi coach Hakim Shaker on the touchline.
The second came on 42 minutes after a poor clearance from Chinese defender Rong Hao on the left, which hit Amjad Kelaf. The Shurta winger took complete advantage of the mistake, after playing a one-two with Mohanad Abdul-Rahim, he paced down the right to the by-line and cut the ball back to Ahmed Yasin in the box.
The Swedish based attacker’s goalbound effort was blocked by the Chinese custodian, but fell to the feet of the Iraqi captain to hammer from close range to make it 2-0.
After the break, Iraq continued to pour forward, and scored a third on 58 minutes from an unbelievable strike from Ali Adnan, collecting the ball from Ahmed Yasin, who had won the ball after a barge on a Chinese player, the left back rushed towards goal, and from an acute angle somehow found the top left hand corner of the goal, with the ball rattling the stanchion before finding the net.
Perrin, having looked relaxed earlier in the game, felt the qualification was running away from them with Lebanon beating Thailand 5-2 in Bangkok and with the Iraqis searching for a fourth, they needed to find a goal.
The Frenchman made swift changes in midfield and attack, bringing on Zhang Xizhe for Yang Hao, Sun Ke for Wang Yougpo and Wui Lei for Gao Lin, to try and search for the goal that would send them to Australia.
And the changes seemed to do the trick when only seconds after sub Wui Lei was booked for simulation in the penalty area China were awarded a penalty after Salam Shaker fouled forward Yu Hanchao, the kick was dually dispatched by another substitute Zhang Xizhe on 72 minutes.
The Red shirts now began to dominate and a minute later, hit the cross bar from a Wui Lei header, Salam Shaker attempted to head the ball away but only managed to guide the ball towards his own goal, with Jalal Hassan tipping the ball over for a corner.
The game was halted for a moment with five minutes left, when one single Iraqi fan invaded the pitch to plant a kiss on the cheek of goalscorer Younis and the bald head of Iraqi coach Hakim Shaker, before he was ushered away by stadium security and despite China piling on the pressure in the latter stages, it was Iraq who were the victors, and qualified for the 2015 Asian Cup as Group C runners-up, with China reaching the finals as the best third placed side.
Iraq 3-1 China
Younis Mahmoud 23, 42, Ali Adnan 58; Zhang Xizhe 72 pen
IRAQ: 12 Jalal Hassan; 18 Mahdi Karim, 2 Ahmed Ibrahim, 13 Salam Shaker, 6 Ali Adnan; 8 Saif Salman (4 Mustafa Nadhim 79′), 23 Yaser Kasim, 11 Ahmed Yasin, Amjad Kelaf (15 Ali Hussein Rahema 85′), Younis Mahmoud [c], 16 Mohanad Abdul-Rahim (9 Mahdi Kamil 90′).
COACH: Hakim Shaker
CHINA: 23 Yang Zhi,; 3 Wu Xi, 4 Rong Hao, 10 Zheng Zhi [c], 6 Feng Xiaoting; 19 Yang Hao (21 Zhang Xizhe 54′) 16 Huang Bowen, 20 Yu Hanchao, 22 Yu Dabao, 8 Wang Yongpo (14 Sun Ke 62′); 18 Gao Lin (15 Wui Lei 62′).
COACH: Alain Perrin (France)
Referee: Yuichi Nishimura (Japan)
Linesmen: Sagara Toru (Japan) & Nagi Toshiyuki (Japan)
Fourth Official: Iida Jumpei (Japan)
Cautions: Wui Lei 71′, Sun Ke 82′.