Iraq will take on the United Arab Emirates in the final of the 21st Gulf Cup on Friday after both sides — the only two of eight in the tournament to be coached by locals — advanced through the group stage undefeated.
The UAE netted eight and conceded two in their four-match run to the final, while Iraq, seeking a fourth Gulf Cup, were slightly more goal shy, scoring six but letting in just one.
The UAE under Mahdi Ali and Iraq under Hakeem Shaker have punched above their weight and cut down to size teams like defending champions Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all of which had some famous international names as coaches.
Qatar, under Paulo Autuori of Brazil, and Oman, under Paul Le Guen of France, could only finish third and fourth respectively in Group A to make a premature exit, while Dutchman Frank Rijkaard’s Saudi Arabia finished third in Group B.
Kuwait, with Serbian Goran Tufegdzic at the helm, did manage to make the semi-finals by the skin of their teeth but were beaten by a young and energetic UAE in the semi-finals.
Yemen, who finished last in Group B, are coached by Tom Saintfiet while Argentine Gabriel Calderon is at the helm in Bahrain.
Two of those coaches have already lost their jobs, in keeping with a predictable trend in the region where coaches are well-rewarded but not guaranteed long-term job security.
Autuori was sacked on Tuesday while the Saudis waited a day longer before showing the door to Rijkaard, ending a deal reportedly worth $16 million signed in June 2011, with the aim of guiding the team to its fifth World Cup finals.
No such fears stalk coaches Ali and Shaker, who have respectively moulded young and fast improving teams brimming with confidence and full of hope.
But on the eve of the final the rival coaches said they were confident but also cautious as they respected each other’s capabilities.
“Tomorrow’s final, as I see it, will be the best match of the tournament,” said coach Ali.
“Iraq are very tough opponents but our team has improved to a higher level in each match. We are ready. We have no injuries and our players are looking forward to fighting for the Cup,” added Ali.
“I am very proud of our fans,” Ali said of his followers who flew in by 21 special flights to cheer their team in the semi-finals. “I thank them for coming out to support us in the semi-finals.
“The fans make the game and without them there is no good match. I look forward to seeing them again.”
Iraqi coach Shaker, on the other hand, called on his players to take advantage of all of their chances in Friday’s title showdown.
“We must use all our chances to try and score and win,” Shaker said.
“The pressure is less in the final compared to the semis. This doesn’t mean that the final is not difficult. We still have to be careful and more attentive. And in the final, you either win or you don’t.”
Both sides impressed in the group stages, scoring comfortable victories and though both were tested in dramatic semi-finals, they fully deserved their places in the title showdown.
Iraq, in particular, had to withstand a late assault by Bahrain who dominated the last 30 minutes during which they not only cancelled out their opponents’ early lead but also came close to snatching the match-winner.
But Iraq withstood a series of attacks with goalkeeper Noor Sabri pulling off some brilliant saves and punched their ticket for the final when they won the penalty shootout 4-2 after full time ended 1-1, Sabri getting the eventual spot-kick winner.
The UAE, however, had to wait until the final minute of their last-four clash to tame Kuwait in their bid to add to their only one previous Gulf Cup title in 2007, Ahmad Khalil scoring his third goal of the championship to become the top scorer.
In the match to decide third place, hosts Bahrain, who are yet to win the title since its inception in 1970, take on 10-time champions Kuwait.