Even without the context of a war-torn nation, Iraq would be hugely difficult to summarise – not only have they experienced great turmoil with their coaches, with Vladimir Petkovic seemingly on the cusp of the sack for failing to secure to qualification only months after Zico was fired, but they’ve also lost their two most important players, Younis Mahmoud and Nashat Akram, both withdrawing on the eve of this World Cup qualifier.
Alaa Abdul-Zahra is out due to suspension, while five of the squad will head over to Turkey to compete in the U20 World Cup, underlining the squad’s relative youthfulness.
Further reading –> Partnerships key for Holger Osieck
However, Petkovic’s decisions against Japan last week should be some indication of how he will instruct his side to line up, even amidst this chaos. He used a 4-3-3 formation which became 4-5-1 when Japan bossed the ball for long periods, and the key feature is the ability of the four players behind the lone striker to burst forward on the break immediately after possession is turned over. The deepest midfielder, Saad Abdulameer Luaibi, sits deeper and protects the back four, with the two advanced midfielders in front of him looking to support Younis Mahmoud with runs from deep.
In this regard, Mahmoud’s presence is very important. His movement is clever, drifting particularly towards the left to drag away central defenders, and he’s also technically very skilled, able to drop off in between the lines and then thread passes in behind for Dhurgham Ismail and Humam Tariq. His absence will be sorely felt.
Australia’s ability to dominate Asian sides in the air – and their subsequent advantage at set pieces – is probably overrated, but after Iraq conceded two headers against Australia in last year’s fixture, and twice more against Oman, it feels like a particularly pertinent point heading into tonight’s crucial qualifier, especially when you consider that the past four Socceroos goals against Iraq have all been headers, dating back to when Mark Viduka nodded in Brett Emerton’s cross at the 2007 Asian Cup.
Japan, of course, have a pair of flying full-backs who both play in the top tier of European football, and with the Iraqi wingers staying high up the pitch, rarely tracking Yuto Nagatomo nor Uchida deep into their own half, they both had great freedom to carry the ball forward and whip in crosses. With Hiroshi Kiyotake drifting inside quickly from the left-hand side, the Inter Milan defender Nagatomo had particularly prominent freedom on the flank, and Mike Havenaar should have scored with a far-post flick-on.
Predictably, Tim Cahill will be key. He scored Australia’s second goal last week with a typical header, making a darting run from the outside of the box to meet Robbie Kruse’s header. As discussed in my preview for The Sporting Journal:
The partnership between Cahill and Kruse has long been a promising one. It’s an obvious relationship: Kruse operates in wide positions and has a decent cross, while Cahill is obviously one of the finest headers of a ball around and thrives on this kind of service.
Kruse will almost certainly try to replicate his role from the Jordan match – coming narrow to drag the left full-back, Ali Adnan, inside, before spinning in behind to meet passes from either Brett Holman and Luke Wilkshire, before crossing for either Cahill or cutting back for a late runner from midfield. A key area might be in that space just to the left of the Iraqi holding midfielder, or Holman’s right. The Aston Villa playmaker likes to drift towards the right channel, and with Shinji Kagawa enjoying great freedom on either side of Luaibi last week, Holman will look to move out into that space.
Kruse has attracted much attention after his match-winning performance last week, but the ability of Tommy Oar on the opposite side to provide dangerous crosses shouldn’t be underestimated – and it was him, of course, who provided the assist for Archie Thompson’s winner in the reverse fixture. It’s unlikely they will be on the same pitch to reprise that combination, as the Melbourne Victory forward has long acknowledged his role as a super-sub – and played a crucial role in pushing Jordan’s defence back within seconds of coming on last week, thus creating the all-important second goal.
Considering that the last three clashes between these two sides have only been decided by one goal, this will surely be a tight encounter; Thompson’s fresh legs and energy might be decisive.