Iran showed the discipline and organisation teams need to win major titles when they came from behind to beat arch-rivals and reigning champions Iraq 2-1 in their opening Asian Cup Group D match on Tuesday.
After trailing to an early goal from Iraqi captain Younus Mahmood, Iran equalised through Gholam Rezaei three minutes before halftime and grabbed all three points with Iman Mobali sweeping home an angled free-kick six minutes from time.
Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi, who predicted his team would bring the Asian Cup back to Tehran for the first time since 1976, was pleased with the win that put his side top of the table after North Korea’s 0-0 draw with UAE earlier.
Asked about the significance of the result on a chilly night at the Al Rayyan Stadium, Ghotbi said: “I think very simply three points. I think we still did not achieve the level of football we can.”
The match, between two neighbours who fought an eight-year war in the 1980s, was free of trouble on or off the pitch and was played in a sporting spirit just as Ghotbi and his Iran counterpart Wolfgang Sidka forecast beforehand.
Ghotbi added that he needed to tell his team to calm themselves down at halftime and maintain their discipline for the rest of the match.
“I think we started the game with a lot of stress and the stress led to the mistakes we made,” he said.
The only sour note was that a planned one minute’s silence for the victims of Sunday’s IranAir plane crash in northwestern Iran in which almost 80 people were killed, was cut short after about 10 seconds because of chants from the Iraqi fans.
Once that was over, and a cat running around the dugout area was shooed away, Iraq were the first to settle and went ahead when Iran’s defence failed to cut out a deep raking cross from the right.
Although Emad Mohammed, whose header appeared destined for the net, was credited by the stadium announcer with the goal, Mahmood had the final touch before it crossed the line.
Iran quickly shook off that disappointment and, with Andranik Teymourian and the outstanding Mobali working well in midfield, they began to threaten an equaliser.
It duly arrived in the 42nd minute when Teymourian played a perfectly weighted pass into Rezaei’s path.
He timed his run to perfection, ignored appeals for offside and, with goalkeeper Mohammed Kassid advancing, swept the ball into the far corner of the net from the right corner of the six-yard box.
Iraq’s Samal Saeed had the most spectacular effort of the opening period when his swerving, dipping 30-metre shot was superbly tipped over the bar by Iran keeper Mahdi Rahmati.
But while neither team truly mastered the other in an entertaining game, Iran increasingly looked the more likely winners and could have gone ahead after 76 minutes.
Iraq substitute Ahmed Ibrahim lost the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and was lucky that Rezaei hit his gift of a chance into the side netting.
When the goal did eventually arrive, the only surprise was the nature of its execution. Mobali swept a long hopeful free-kick into the Iraq penalty area, and the ball evaded everyone and ended up in the net.
Iran’s next match is against North Korea on Saturday when Iraq play the UAE.