LONDON: Srecko Katanec admitted he was a relived man after it took a dramatic, last-gasp winner to earn his Iraq side all three points against Vietnam.
The 2007 winners came into the tournament confident of doing well, having lost only once in the past 10 months and looking every inch a side that, with a bit of momentum, could cause a shock in the UAE.
Their opening match in Abu Dhabi, although not a walk in the park, was not supposed to serve up too many problems. But having twice been a goal down to an inspired Vietnam side, it took a brilliant free-kick from Adnan Ali deep into injury time to gift the Lions of Mesopotamia all the points.
To say the performance was not what Katanec was after would be an understatement, and he told his team they can forget about ultimate glory if they play like that again during the tournament.
“The first half was horrible,” the Iraq coach said.
“We showed nothing that we did in training — no power, no personality at all. Maybe it was first-game emotions, the players felt the pressure a little bit.
“I knew it would be a tough game,” added the Slovenian.
“But the most important thing was the three points.”
First matches of tournaments always throw up shocks — as Jordan’s defeat of Australia on Sunday illustrated — and that Iraq played badly and still took all the points will be the big positive to take out of the match. But the 90 minutes in the UAE capital highlighted there is still much for Iraq to do before they can be remotely considered title contenders.
Vietnam’s Golden Dragons took a shock lead after 24 minutes, defender Ali Faez panicking under pressure from Nguyen Cong Phuong and backheeling the ball past goalkeeper Jalal Hassan Hachim.
Iraq levelled 10 minutes later through striker Mohanad Ali, who profited from a defensive error to rifle home from the edge of the box.
Cong Phuong restored the Golden Lions’ lead three minutes before the break, stabbing in from close range after Nguyen Trong Huang’s shot had been parried by Hachim.
But Humam Tareq lashed home a second equalizer on the hour mark after more horror defending from the Vietnamese, who by that point looked to be running out of steam.
Having played so badly Iraq would have likely taken the point, but deep into injury time Ali curled a left-foot free-kick into the top corner to break Vietnamese hearts.
In terms of mixing the dramatic with the spectacular it is not an overstatement to suggest that Ali’s free-kick winner is up there with Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp dead-ball brilliance against Spain at least year’s World Cup.
It summed up what was a match-winning performance from the midfielder who was excellent throughout and who will likely be the key man if Iraq go far in the tournament.
This performance, however, suggested Iraq will have to go up several gears if they are to make good on some promising displays heading into this match.
Vietnam, while no mugs, are not world-beaters and Iraq will be only too aware that they should have seen off the South-East Asian side more convincingly.
"If we want to go deep into the tournament we will have to improve," Katanec said.
"But I have a clearer picture now of our overall condition and we will grow into the tournament."