Why the Socceroos must be wary of this Iraq danger man

It will be a young, hungry and determined Iraq side that the Socceroos will face on Thursday night, with a new generation of talent determined to make their mark for the national side.

Mohanad Abdulraheem

Iraq's forward Mohanad Abdulraheem Source: AFP

None more so than 23-year-old striker Mohanad Abdulraheem, the 2012 AFC Young Player of the Year, who is hoping to step into the significant void left by Iraqi legend Younis Mahmoud.

Mahmoud, Iraq’s third all-time leading scorer, was a dominant figure in Iraqi football for well over a decade.

But after a farewell tour that seemed to last longer than Johnny Farnham’s, Mahmoud finally called time on his career in August last year.

The nation have now pinned their hopes on Abdulraheem to step into Mahmoud's quite big shoes and he will be looking to prove he's up to the job when Iraq take on the Socceroos at Tehran's Shahid Dastgerdi Stadium on Thursday.

Abdulraheem played alongside Mahmoud in the early stages of his national team career and since the veteran departed has become a goal-scoring machine, with 15 goals in his last 20 appearances for club and country, capped by a four-goal haul against Thailand in October.

The prolific striker, who is a threat not only on the ground but aerially as well, looms as a danger man for an Australian side with a weakened central defence due to the absence of Matt Spiranovic and with Trent Sainsbury not having played since October last year.

Australia may have got the better of Iraq 2-0 in Perth in September last year, but that was without Abdulraheem, who poses a different threat to Justin Meram, who started up front for Iraq that evening.

Whereas Meram does a lot of his best work with his back to goal, Abdulraheem is more of a penalty-box predator, capable of finding space where there is none and always getting into the right positions at the right time.

After a short stint with Al Nasr in the UAE, and an ill-fated stint in Algeria before that, he returned to Iraqi side Al-Zawra’a at the start of the season.

According to Iraqi journalist Hassanin Mubarak, this is his chance to make the position of Iraq's main striker his own.

“The pressure is immense, but some of that comes from the player himself,” Mubarak explained.

“He’s good enough to lead the attack and at the present time he’s in the best form of his career, and enjoying his football for both club and country.”

This Iraq team may still be a team in transition, trying to step out of the shadow of the 2007 Asian Cup winning golden generation.

But one thing Australia learned a long time ago, especially at that 2007 Asian Cup, was that Iraq should never be taken lightly.

This Iraq side may not have the quality of teams gone by, but they still possess an ingredient at the core of every Iraqi team, one that always makes them a threat – pride.

While it may be all they have to play for, with realistic chances of qualifying for Russia all but extinguished, pride in their country is enormously powerful and it will mean they will be as tough, competitive and combative as ever in Tehran.

“Do Iraq have enough to win? They have, but they have been prone to making costly mistakes," Mubarak said. "It really depends what kind of Iraqi side turn up and most importantly how they start.”

And key to that will be 25-year-old Saad Abdul-Amir, another of the next generation, with the vice-captain developing into one of Iraq’s most important players.

It was the Al-Ahli midfielder who took the responsibility and scored the decisive penalty in their 1-0 win over Iran in a friendly at the Azadi Stadium on Saturday.

“Saad has grown up in the last 12 months and much of that is to do with his importance to the national side,” Mubarak said.

“He is Iraq's Mr. Reliable, he doesn’t do anything flash, no Hollywood passes or making mazy runs into the box, but he gives everything.

"He is the heartbeat of Iraq's current side and his attributes encompass the characteristics of this Iraqi side – a good hard-working side, no frills, and just an honest hard-working footballing team.”

Matches against Australia always bring out the best in Iraq.

A win against the Asian champions would be a nice way to start a new chapter in Iraqi football.

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4 min read
Published 21 March 2017 at 5:00pm
By Paul Williams