Vol. 5 Num 1124 Sun. July 29, 2007  

AFC Asian Cup 2007
Clash of contrasting styles

The best defence takes on the best attack in the tournament as Iraq and Saudi Arabia play off for the region's premier football crown in the Asian Cup final here Sunday.

Iraq, who have captivated the football world with their inspirational progress to the Jakarta decider, have conceded just two goals in five games, while the dazzling Saudis have found the net 12 times.

The Iraqis, emotional favourites as they chase their first-ever Asian Cup title amid all the carnage back home, will have to find a way to restrict the scoring opportunities of the Saudis' star striker Yasser Al Qahtani.

Known as the 'Sniper', he is joint leading tournament sharpshooter with Japan's Naohiro Takahara on four goals and with teammate Malek Maaz forms a potent striking force for the Iraqi defence.

Iraq have showed great resolve throughout the tournament, crushing Australia 3-1 and negotiating South Korea on penalties in last Wednesday's gruelling two-hour semifinal in Kuala Lumpur.

The triple champion Saudis have played all but one of their five matches in Jakarta and their tournament hopes soared when they shocked favourites Japan 3-2 in their semifinal in Hanoi.

Although Jakarta's cavernous Gelora Bung Karno Stadium is unlikely to be anywhere near full, the two Gulf rivals have been the best two sides in the three-week tournament.

"The Saudis have the best attack with 12 goals and we have the best defence with only two goals conceded," Iraq coach Jorvan Vieira said Saturday.

"That does not mean we haven't scored goals, it just means we have scored the necessary goals to win to be in the final, sometimes it's quality not quantity.

"My boys in my point of view deserve to be in the final, they have worked very hard and we have so many problems in all sectors but the prize is tomorrow, I hope.

"The most important thing is that we have reached the final for the first time in the history of Iraqi football and all Iraq people are very happy."

The final brings together two Brazilian coaches, Vieira and his Saudi counterpart Helios dos Anjos, who has taken the Saudis to their seventh final at the last eight Asian Cups.

"I have spoken to my players about keeping their feet on the ground, this game will not be easy, it will be very hard, it's the final and they are always different," dos Anjos said Saturday.

"There is no favourite in this game, both teams have the same chances. We have our dream to win and Iraq have the same dream."

Dos Anjos said his Saudi team had overcome tough challenges in the tournament -- they drew with eventual semi-finalists South Korea, needed an injury-time winner to douse co-hosts Indonesia, had luck against Uzbekistan and overcame three-time champions Japan -- but Iraq presented a huge challenge.

"Iraq will be very tough opponents," he said. "With the qualities they have, the emotion over the social problems in their country, they will be very motivated to win."

Dos Anjos, coaching outside South America for the first time, said his team's ability to get quality ball to their two strikers, Al Qahtani and Maaz, will be decisive in the outcome.

Yet for both camps it is a win-win scenario for Arab football in the first all-Arab final since the Saudis beat United Arab Emirates on penalties in 1996.

"Of course, there will be pressure for us to do well and we want to win but we are also very pleased for the Iraqis, who are our brothers," Maaz said.

"If they win, we will be happy for them and if we win, I'm sure they will also be happy."

Saudi Arabia captain Yasser al Qahtani (L) shakes hands with his Iraqi counterpart Younis Mahmoud, with the Asian Cup on display, prior to their meeting in the final to take place on Sunday. PHOTO: AFP