BASRA: Iraq defeated Saudi Arabia 2-0 on Monday evening at a near-waterlogged Basra International Stadium to go top of Group A after two games in the Arabian Gulf Cup.
Despite conditions that bordered on the farcical, Ibrahim Bayesh’s first-half goal put the hosts in control before Aso Rostam sealed the win just before the end.
It means that in the final round of games in the group on Thursday, a point for Iraq against Yemen will be enough, while Saudi Arabia will probably have to beat Oman to progress.
It was always going to be tough for the Green Falcons, who fielded a young and inexperienced team against the full-strength hosts.
Torrential rain made the game almost unplayable and it did not help that Oman and Yemen had played on the same surface earlier in the day.
Running with the ball was almost impossible and it was only long balls that made an impact. Any attempt at the short game failed more often than not.
The conditions also meant a lot of sliding and long follow-throughs with Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi — the busier of the two — earning the ire of the home crowd on more than one occasion.
However, the home fans were dancing in the rain on the half-hour mark. Raed Al-Ghamdi rose to clear an Iraqi corner but it only went as far as Bayesh. Standing near the penalty spot, the Al Quwa Al Jawiya star had time to pick his spot and fired the ball into the bottom left corner of the Saudi Arabian net with Al-Aqidi unsighted.
Ten minutes later, the goalkeeper got down well at the same post to beat out a fierce shot from Ayman Hussein.
The Al-Nassr star was in action once again before the break, and was the busier of the two stoppers.
Saad Al-Shehri’s men showed little in the first half, with the exception of an early free-kick with which Qassem Lajami failed to connect.
Iraq also looked more dangerous after the break. The Lions of Mesopotamia should have doubled their lead almost immediately when, just yards out, Hussein climbed high to get on the end of a right-sided cross, but Al-Aqidi was equal to the challenge and made a point-blank save.
Soon after, Hassan Abdulkareem broke free but was foiled by the pitch.
Saudi Arabia pushed forward in the closing stages in an attempt to get a point, but five minutes from the end Iraq made it two from a corner, Rostam heading home at the far post.
VAR took time to check that the ball had not gone out of play, but the goal was given.
There is still work for Iraq to do, but avoiding defeat against Yemen in the final group game is well within their reach, although not a foregone conclusion.
Earlier in the day, Oman had to come from behind to defeat Yemen 3-2. An own goal from Ali Ahmed inside the opening two minutes put Oman ahead, but by the half-hour Yemen were 2-1 up and dreaming of a first-ever win in the competition.
However, goals either side of the break from Arshad Al-Alawi and Issam Al-Sabhi gave Oman the lead and, in the end, three points.
It means that Oman and Iraq have four points each from the two games, one more than Saudi Arabia, while Yemen are still looking to get off the mark.