Muscat: Iraq were crowned winners of the inaugural AFC U-22 Championship on Sunday evening as Hakeem Shakir’s side secured the title with a goal from Mohanad Abdulraheem in a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia at Seeb Sports Complex.
The 2012 AFC Youth Player of the Year gave Iraq the lead in the 33rd minute with his first goal in the tournament, just four minutes after Saudi Arabia midfielder Abdulfattah Asiri had seen his penalty on the half-hour mark crash against the post.
Although an exciting, open climax to the tournament saw a series of chances at either end, neither side could make further inroads into the scoreline after Abdulraheem’s opener, faced with two goalkeepers in Jalal Hassan and Ahmad Al Harbi who were in inspired form.
Iraq become the tournament’s first-ever winners, doing so with a 100% record having won every one of their group stage fixtures, and then besting Japan and Korea Republic in the knockout stages before reaching the competition’s finale.
After a cagey opening, the match exploded into life on 15 minutes after a throw-in from Dhurgham Dawood deep into the Saudi Arabia half was flicked on by Abdulraheem to be met with a spectacular scissor kick from Marwan Al Ajeeli. However, the acrobatic effort was well-saved by an alert Al Harbi who threw himself to his left to push the ball wide.
An injury-ravaged Saudi Arabia team had started the game with five players on the sick list and then suffered yet more bad luck after 21 minutes as they saw their captain Motaz Hawsawi stretchered off the field.
In the defensive reshuffle that ensued, Al Ajeeli nearly took advantage, being afforded too much space to get away a shot from 20 yards that was saved by the Saudi Arabia custodian.
The white-clad Saudis instantly responded through Saleh Al Shehri, the striker unleashing a fierce shot on goal which Iraq goalkeeper Hassan did well to clear out of danger with a strong left hand.
Just before the half hour mark, defender Ali Bahjat’s handball inside his own penalty area gave Asiri a golden chance to open the scoring for Saudi Arabia. But the midfielder, who had converted successfully from the spot against Jordan in the semi-final, drove his penalty against Hassan’s right-hand post and the ball ricocheted wide.
And Asiri’s error was punished just three minutes later, as Al Ajeeli dinked the ball through to Abdulraheem whose composed finish rolled past an already-committed Al Harbi and into the bottom corner.
In the second-half, Bahjat went close to doubling the lead as the Iraq left-back blasted a freekick from 25-yards out that whistled narrowly wide.
A flurry of substitutions for both sides broke up the frenetic tempo as the game reached a temporary lull but the pace picked up again as Saudi Arabia gained a renewed sense of urgency, which Iraq responded to, inside the final 20 minutes.
First Al Shehri went close with a firm header from Abdullah Al Ammar’s left wing cross which a diving Hassan blocked adroitly on 70 minutes, and then just four minutes later Saudi Arabia substitute Mohammed Majrashi saw his powerful long range effort saved by a flying Iraq custodian.
Iraq replied through a header from Mahdi Kamil and a well-struck free kick from substitute Ali Faez but, again, Al Harbi was equal to their efforts with two instinctive saves.
Despite seeing Iraq defender Waleed Salim dismissed from the contest deep into injury time following two bookable offences in as many minutes, Saudi Arabia could not beat Hassan nor, ultimately, the clock as the referee ended the game to send a passionate congregation of Iraqi fans in the stands into ecstasy.
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Riyadh: Al Shabab coach Amar Souayah described his team’s match against Esteghlal as a ‘cup final’ after the Saudi club overcame the Iranian side 2-1 with a pair of late goals at the King Fahd International Stadium.
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