Group C: Saudi Arabia 0-0 Iraq
Changshu: Iraq retained their position at the top of Group D in the AFC U23 Championship on Saturday evening as Abdulghani Shahad’s side were held 0-0 by Saudi Arabia.
The draw comes after the former champions defeated Malaysia in their opening game and moves the Iraqis on to four points from their first two games, two points more than Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Jordanians were held to a 1-1 draw by Malaysia earlier in the day and Saturday’s results ensure any two of the four teams in the group can still qualify for the knockout phase.
At Changshu Sports centre, both sides effectively cancelled each other during an opening half hour that saw the teams engaged in a tense midfield battle that yielded little action in front of goal.
Only Alaa Mhawi managed to prize open the Saudi defence during that period, the winger finding his way to the bye-line before cutting back a cross that, after a brief melee, ended up in the hands of goalkeeper Amin Al Bukhari.
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With a minute left in the half, Saudi Arabia threatened at a set play as Osama Al Khalaf sent his free kick from just inside the Iraqi half into the area and Abdulelah Al Amri’s header back across goal caused momentary panic for the defence. But Ahmed Basil eventually gathered the ball.
The second half followed a similar pattern as neither side was able to impose themselves on proceedings.
Iraq looked set to finally claim the opener as the game entered the final quarter after a mistake by Hamdan Al Shamari saw possession gifted to Mhawi on the edge of the penalty area.
The winger advanced before firing in a low cross to the feet of Bashar Resan, but he only managed to put his shot the wrong side of the post.
Both coaches attempted to open up the game in the final minutes with a string of changes, but in the deadlock remained and the points were shared.
Daniel Teglia: Saudi Arabia head coach
"The game today saw a lot of fighting and struggling from both teams. We tried to minimise the risks as much as we could and sometimes there was no real play. Against a strong team like Iraq, we were able to control the game and we had some goal scoring opportunities. In such a game, we couldn’t afford to lose because it might have put us out of the tournament and that’s why we tried to close the space and minimise the errors to get such a result."
Abdulghani Shahad: Iraq head coach
"The match was very important for both teams and it is clear Saudi wanted it to be a draw because they play their last match against Malaysia. But I think the Malaysian team is going to get better match after match and now all of the expectations are on the last match. Some of our players weren’t in their best form today, especially in attack. From now, we have to forget the last two matches and only think about the next game."