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Tense stalemate with Iraq keeps Saudi Arabia’s U23 AFC Cup hopes alive

Iraq retained their position at the top of Group D in the AFC U23 Championship after being held 0-0 by Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy: AFC.com)
Daniel Teglia’s Saudi Under 23 side kept their hopes of reaching the knockout stages of AFC U-23 Championship firmly alive with a 0-0 draw with group leaders Iraq in Changshu.
The point earned from the 0-0 stalemate puts Saudi Arabia joint second in the group on two points behind Iraq who lead the Group C with four points. Jordan’s 1-1 draw with Malaysia in the earlier game played in Group C leaves Teglia’s team with a great opportunity of qualifying for the next stage if they can beat Malaysia in their final game.
Saudi Arabia had made one change from the side that drew 2-2 with Jordan, as they dropped striker Abdulaziz Al-Aryani and started Jaber Asiri who played a part as a substitute in Saudi’s late fight-back in the opening group game with Jordan.
Despite a comfortable 4-1 victory over Malaysia in their opening match, Abdul-Ghani Shahad opted to make two changes to his side, with defender Ahmed Abdul-Ridha and midfielder Ibrahim Bayish coming in for midfielder Mohammed Jafal and striker Farhan Shakur. The two changes saw Alaa Mahawi pushed up from full back to the right side of midfield as the Iraqis packed their midfield and played with a false number nine in midfielder Ibrahim Bayish.
There was little in the first half that amounted to goalmouth action with a cagey start from both sides with the only action of note being two cautions brandished by Chinese referee Ma Ning in the opening ten minutes. Alaa Mahawi of Iraq earned the first yellow in the fifth minute after a late challenge on Saudi’s Ali Al-Lajami and on 10 minutes Saudi midfielder Osama Al-Khalaf was shown a yellow for a foul on Hussein Ali.
The match was at the mercy of the referee’s whistle with 19 fouls committed and 16 free kicks conceded in the first half as the first forty-five minutes was full of stoppages and interruptions.
Late in the half Iraqi midfielder Amjad Atwan was yellow carded for leaning with his elbow on a Saudi player and from the resulting free kick from Sami Al-Naji produced Saudi and the half’s only effort on target from a Abdululah Alamri header that was comfortably saved by the Iraqi keeper Ahmed Basil.
The only chance for Iraq came in the 27th minute when Alaa Mahawi got down the right flank leaving Hamdan Al-Shamrani in his tracks and crossed into the box. But Iraq’s Hamza Adnan was unable to get a touch on the ball and was quickly surrounded as a combination of the Saudi keeper and three defenders blocked the Iraqi left back’s path to goal to his own frustration.
From the opening of the second half, Iraq played with more urgency, as it looked as if Abdul-Ghani Shahad had given them a stern team-talk at the break. They found space behind the Saudi backline that was exploited by the wide players Hussein Ali and Iraqi captain Bashar Resan, as the Saudis conceded two corners in as many minutes with Iraq having four shots on goal.
The physical and experienced Iraqi side piled on the pressure with their coach urging his side to push well up into the Saudi half. Seeing his side hemmed in, Saudi coach Daniel Teglia made an early change in attack bringing on the lively striker Rakan Al-Anaze, the hero of the first game with Jordan as they soaked up the early pressure.
Both coaches were animated on the sidelines with the facial expressions of Iraqi coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad seemingly getting more and more frustrated as the half went on. The Iraqis looking to win and qualify for the next round, sent on strikers Alaa Abbas and Farhan Shakur for Hussein Ali and Ibrahim Bayish in the last five minutes in a search for the elusive goal.
But while Iraq dominated with 56 percent of the possession, the Saudi back four were disciplined, remaining firm and compact to Iraq’s unorthodox attacking formation headed by midfielder Ibrahim Bayish and despite the Iraqis creativity in the final third, the Saudi defense limited their opponents to only a couple of clear cut chances in the whole ninety minutes as the match ended in a 0-0 stalemate.

STAR MAN
The tall central defender Abdulelah Alamri epitomised the Saudi doggedness in defense with an assured and assertive performance at the heart of the defense making fives clearances and three key interceptions in the game, as he proved to be Saudi’s best player on the night.

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