Srecko Katanec says Iraq 'growing up fast' as Asian Cup showdown with Iran awaits
Iraq book place in last 16 with 3-0 win over Yemen with Wednesday's match against arch rivals Iran to determine Group D winners
Iraq manager Srecko Katanec praised his players for a mature performance against Yemen after victory in Sharjah clinched a place in the knockout stages of the Asian Cup.
The 3-0 win - courtesy of goals from Mohanad Ali Kadhim, Bashar Resan and substitute Alaa Abbas - set up a tantalising clash with neighbours and bitter rivals Iran in Dubai on Wednesday to decide who tops Group D in a repeat of their combustible quarter-final of 2015, which Iraq won on penalties.
“We played such a good game tonight,” said Katanec, the Slovenian who only took charge of the "Lions of Mesopotamia" in September. “We played good football and scored early, and know we are through from group stage. That was important for us."
The dominant display against war-torn Yemen was in stark contrast to Iraq's opening group match against Vietnam last week, in which they had to twice come from behind to beat the Suzuki Cup champions.
“We need to grow up a lot," Katanec added. "Our performance against Yemen was good but we can play better and we should play better if we want to win the Asian Cup. We are growing up during this competition. I saw a lot of positives from this game.”
The game was effectively over as a contest inside 19 minutes as Iraq stamped their authority on proceedings.
The 18-year-old Kadhim scored a wonderful solo goal to put Iraq ahead after 11 minutes, although questions must be raised of the Yemeni defence.
Pouncing on a loose back pass, Kadhim held off three defenders before rifling his shot past Jalal Hassan in the Yemen goal.
Resan added a second eight minutes later with a shot from outside the area that deflected off Ahmed Al Sarori.
Kadhim hit the post in one of the rare highlights of the second half before Abbas struck in injury time.
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“We should have scored more goals and be more aggressive,” Katanec said when asked if his players relaxed after leading 2-0 so early.
“I have been only a short time with the team but when you are 2-0 [ahead] you are happy and the players are happy."
Katanec, who coached the UAE national team between 2009-11, cut a far happier figure than the one who spoke to reporters in Abu Dhabi following the 3-2 win over Vietnam last Tuesday.
Then he could only watch in horror as Iraq conceded an own goal to trail 2-1 at half time before second-half goals - including a superb Kadhim free kick to win the match at the death - capped a superb comeback.
“Against Vietnam it was a different team. I can’t compare the two teams because Vietnam are better [than Yemen]," Katanec said.
“It was our first game and the players may have been under pressure, and secondly, Vietnam play against us 45 minutes at the top level.
“They were very fast, closed [us down], strong and difficult, and for our team to come through that situation was a really good result. We would prefer to play a better team on paper, like Iran, where you’ll not find 10 players in the box, like Vietnam.”
With both Iraq and Iran having clinched their places in the last 16, the latter courtesy of a 2-0 win over Vietnam earlier Saturday, Wednesday's game will determine who tops the group and a potentially easier route to the quarter-finals.
“I know, for Iraq, what it means to play Iran,” Katanec said. “We’ll not just play the game but we want to win and we’ll try to win.
“For me, I don’t care if we are to finish first or second in the group, and I don’t know who we will play later on. I have yet to decide on the match against Iran. Maybe I’ll give the chance to some other players.
“I’ll see the situation of the players. Maybe some players are tired and some need rest. But we will play to win, and I think we have enough players to do that.”
Yemen, who kicked off their campaign with a 5-0 defeat to Iran, suffered a second heavy defeat in as many matches, and manager Jan Kocian was again left to rue defensive mistakes.
“It was individual mistakes from which both Iran [in the first game] and Iraq scored,” he said.
“We played better in the second half but it was very hard for a team like us to get back in the game when you are 2-0 down. We tried our best though.”
Yemen meet Vietnam to determine who finishes third in the group, and thus a chance to potentially join Iran and Iraq in the knockout phase, in Al Ain on Wednesday.
Updated: January 12, 2019 09:48 PM