Iraq desperate to avoid early exit at Asian Cup

Iraq coach Wolfgang Sidka is hoping that his team won’t create
an unwanted piece of history at this year’s Asian Cup.

The defending champion has never failed to make it out of the
first round since the tournament took on its current format in
1968, but after a loss to Iran in its opening match, the 2007
winners are in danger of being the first.

Iraq plays the United Arab Emirates on Saturday needing at least
a point to stay in the tournament, but the team’s German coach
tried to play down the pressure on his players.

”More than 50 percent of teams are under pressure, including
our team,” Sidka said Thursday. ”The first match was very tough,
they won the title three times, we are the defending champion.

”It’s a tough competition, the most important in Asia, and sure
you’re under pressure, but I’m also very sure we have the right
answers.”

A loss on Saturday would send the Iraqis home early, four years
after the team celebrated an emotional first victory in the
tournament after a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the final in
Malaysia.

But Sidka, the 56-year-old former Bahrain coach who took charge
of Iraq in July last year, is still focusing on reaching the
knockout stage, and says there is as much pressure on the
opposition as his own side.

”We are full of confidence,” Sidka said. ”Our target is to
reach the quarterfinals first. We have a very important match with
UAE, and we have to do well, we know this.

”It’s a crucial match for us but also for UAE. They’re under
pressure also. It’s important that you concentrate over 90 minutes
and you keep your nerve. Fight with your heart, but with a brain,
that’s also very important.”

Midfielder Mahdi Kareem, one of the stars of Iraq’s surprise win
four years ago, also stressed the importance of keeping a cool head
in the game at the Al-Rayyan Stadium.

”We are under pressure of course,” Kareem said. ”We have to
prepare ourselves psychologically more than physically now.

”We lost the first match but we will try to compensate for that
in the next match. There is a lot of pressure on us but our morale
is good.”

Iraq will be up against a team only four places lower in FIFA’s
rankings. A UAE side featuring several young players failed to
break down the famously stingy North Korean defense in an opening
0-0 draw, but coach Srecko Katanec was encouraged by his side’s
performance.

”We played a very good game the first game so we are ready for
the second one,” Katanec said. ”We played well in the first game
and we are ready for Iraq. We know them and they know us.”