MANAMA: Iraq made it to the final of the 21st Gulf Cup after a clinical 4-2 penalty shoot-out victory over host country Bahrain at the National Stadium on Tuesday.
Goalkeeper Noor Sabri emerged hero for Iraq, making two fine saves before converting the fifth and deciding kick from the penalty spot, sending his nation to the title decider against the UAE on Friday.
Regular time ended 1-1 as skipper Younis Mahmood put the Iraqis ahead after 18 minutes, but Bahrain roared back into the game and found the equalizer in the 63rd minute through Hussain Baba.
The final, set to tip off at 5.45pm at the National Stadium in Riffa, will be preceded by the third-place tie between Bahrain and Kuwait at 3.30pm at Khalifa Sports City Stadium in Isa Town.
Iraq, the three-time Gulf Cup champions, took firm control on the early proceedings and were finally rewarded on 18 minutes when Mahmood collected a long pass from the midfield and evaded Bahrain's last defender Abdulla Al Marzooqi before firing past goalkeeper Sayed Mohammed Jaffer.
Backed by a full-house crowd, the Bahrainis put on a spirited show in the second-half and they eventually put the scores back level in the 63rd minute when Baba stepped up for a free-kick, sending the ball into the top right corner of Iraqi goalkeeper Noor Sabri.
Excitement mounted late on with both teams creating several scoring chances, but were still unable to add to their goals. Scores remained unchanged in the two 15-minute extra-time periods as the match was decided through the penalty shoot-out.
Iraq managed to capitalise from four kicks by Dergham Ismail, Waleed Salem, Younis Mahmood and Noor Sabri, while Bahrain could only find the target twice through Faouzi Aaish and Sayed Dia Saeed, while Mohammed Hussain and Abdulwhab Al Malood efforts were denied by goalkeeper Noor Sabri.
In the post-match press conference late on, Iraq head coach Hakeem Shaker said his team has a lot of work to do ahead of their clash against the UAE in the final of the 21st Gulf Cup.
“We had a lot of mistakes; if these negatives continue then they will surely affect us,” Shaker said.
“It is not a shame that we struggled against Bahrain. They have a strong advantage playing as the home team.
“We wish we controlled the match more. But in the end, the most important thing is we won the match.”
On his part, Bahrain head coach Gabriel Calderon expressed his disappointment with the national team’s loss, but called on his men to keep their heads held high after the valiant fight they put up in the game.
“Congratulations to Iraq but also congratulations to our players,” Calderon said.
“I am upset about the result, we’re supposed to be in the final however it was bad luck in the penalty shootout.
“But I am proud of the players who left the pitch with their heads held up.”
On losing through the penalty kicks, Calderon commented: “We have worked on penalties in training, but it depends on the players’ experience in the match and luck as well.
“All of the great players, Platini, Maradona, all of them lost on penalty kicks.”