Iraq could miss the experience of Nashat Akram when they meet UAE in the final tomorrow, according to captain Younis Mahmoud.
Akram, Fifa's 2007 midfielder of the year and star of Iraq's Asian Cup triumph that year, is absent from Hakeem Shakir's team, who beat hosts Bahrain 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw late Tuesday night to put themselves within one game of their first title since 1988.
Mahmoud, who scored Iraq's goal against Bahrain in the 18th minute and also netted a cheeky "Panenka" penalty in the shoot-out, thinks the complexion of the game changed because of a lack of experience in his team. Iraq conceded their first goal of the tournament when Bahrain equalised in the 63rd minute.
"Our levels dropped significantly in the second half and this is normal because most of our players lack experience and are not familiar with the demands of playing under pressure, in an atmosphere that we faced in this game with a packed stadium supporting the other team," said Mahmoud.
At 29, the forward, who plays for Qatar's Al Wakrah, is two years older than any other outfield player in an Iraq squad that has an average age of just 21.
"We still need Nashat Akram in the midfield because we need a player of his experience to lead our young midfielders and tutor them. There is so much our young players could learn from him."
Akram, who played the first half of the season with Al Nasr but is looking for a new club following the signing of Japan's Takayuki Morimoto as the Dubai club's Asian player, was left out of the Iraq squad despite a tally of 114 caps.
Mahmoud himself would not have made the trip to Bahrain if Zico was still the Iraq coach.
The Brazilian had ignored senior men such as Mahmoud, Akram and Karrar Jassim through most of his reign before he left the job in late November over a pay dispute.
"Are we [he, Akram and Karrar] not one of the stars of Asia?" Mahmoud said. "But they are not with us now because some members of the press and some officials agreed with Zico on our expulsion.
"Thank God I did not retire and succeeded in leading the team to the final. There are many who demanded the removal of Younis Mahmoud from the national team in the recent period."
Talking about the final, the Iraq captain praised UAE and said: "Facing UAE in the final of the tournament is a new challenge for us. They are a great team, used to playing in such an atmosphere and succeeding at this level.
"So it will be another tough match and we will have to show the same fighting spirit that we showed against Bahrain."
Noor Sabri, the Iraq goalkeeper who made two saves in the penalty shoot-out against Bahrain and successfully converted the final spot kick, was pleased with his efforts, but credited the entire team for the win.
"Bahrain came close to scoring after getting the equaliser, but we were able to take the game to extra time and then the penalty kicks," he said.
"Every player played his part."
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