Iraq coach Srecko Katanec is keen to ease the pressure on his players ahead of their opening Asian Cup clash with Vietnam on Tuesday.
The 2007 champions are second seeds behind Iran – the top-ranked team in Asia – in Group D but will want to still be in with a chance of topping the pool when they meet their neighbours in the final match of the round robin on January 16.
Katanec is determined not to get ahead of himself, with matches against Vietnam and Yemen to come first, and says his side are “ready for battle”.
“The first match in every competition is always important, from the Asian Cup to the World Cup,” he said. “What I can say is that we’ll do our best to have a good game. We are ready for the battle.
“We will take it one game at a time. We are paying full attention to the match against Vietnam and haven’t yet thought of Iran or Yemen.
“Each game is a different story. We need to keep good fighting spirit and cool heads before Vietnam.
“I am very confident about the team. They have played very well in recent matches.
“You always want a positive result and I know Iraqis are very passionate about their football. But I can’t always claim that we will win. That would put unnecessary pressure on our players.”
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) January 4, 2019
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Iraq – Ahmed Yasin
The retirement of record cap-holder Younis Mahmoud in 2016 means there is a vacancy for an Iraqi to become the nation’s latest footballing hero at this tournament. With 59 caps to his name, attacker Ahmed Yasin is already an experienced campaigner, and he promises to be one of the brightest sparks for Iraq.
Vietnam – Nguyen Quang Hai
Vietnam’s joint top scorer at the 2018 Asian Games, 21-year-old Nguyen Quang Hai was one of the driving forces behind the team’s run to a fourth-place finish in that competition. Hai was also named MVP as Vietnam won the AFF Championship last year and is a big talent in the midfield.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– Iraq beat Vietnam 2-0 in their only previous Asian Cup meeting, it was in the quarter-finals of the 2007 edition which Iraq went on to win.
– This is Iraq’s ninth Asian Cup participation, including their seventh in a row. They won the title in 2007, beating Saudi Arabia in the final (1-0).
– Iraq have reached the knockout stages of the Asian Cup in each of their last seven appearances.
– This is Vietnam’s second Asian Cup appearance since reunification in 1976. They made it out of the group stages in 2007 before being knocked out by Iraq in the quarter-finals.
– Vietnam’s only Asian Cup victory to date came against United Arab Emirates in 2007 (2-0).
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