Three in a row for Arbil
© AFP

Arbil were crowned Iraqi Premier League champions for the third successive year after beating arch-rivals Najaf in a dramatic penalty shoot-out on the final matchday on Thursday.

Arbil, or Hewler as they are known in Kurdish, seemed on the verge of surrendering the league crown they had won in 2007 and 2008 for much of their final fixture against Najaf. Indeed their opponents controlled most the game and even went ahead in the shoot-out, only for Arbil's international keeper Ahmad Ali to save three consecutive penalties to set up the victory. 

Ali's heroics were not confined to the shoot-out either, with a string of inspired saves during the game - not least one late on from Saeed Mohsen - keeping the game scoreless. 

This was the third league runners-up spot for Najaf following disappointments in 1995/96 and 2005/06. For Hewler's coach Thaer Ahmed, meanwhile, it was a case of déjà vu, having steered his charges to the league crown last season as well. Though pleased with the victory, Ahmad felt his men could have ended their long campaign with a better performance.

"I think we could have done better," the coach remarked after the match. "This was a sub-standard performance for a final-day fixture in the Premier League, but there are a few reasons for that. This was the conclusion of an exhausting season, plus playing in front of that huge crowd affected us. These and some other factors caused the players to lose focus. Although we got the title in the end, the real winners were the fans."

We might not have deserved a victory today, but in the end we won the shoot-out and got our medals - and that's all that really matters.
Abril top scorer Ahmed Salah

As well as taking the title, the team from Arbil also boasted the most potent attack, with 55 goals, the attacking duo of Ahmed Salah and Luay Salah leading the way with 15 and 11 strikes respectively.

"This is the second time in three seasons I've finished as the league's top-scorer," Ahmed Salah said after the final. "We might not have deserved a victory today, but in the end we won the shoot-out and got our medals - and that's all that really matters," he added.

This season's revelation were Duhok, who delighted their fans with their best finish since debuting in the Premier league in 1998.  The team known as the Mountain Eagles secured bronze medals after prevailing in the match for the third place against Amana, the latter succumbing to their only defeat of the season.

Duhok had Khalid Mushir to thank for their victory, the international defender grabbing the only goal of the game. "I'm delighted and overwhelmed with this win," he said after the final whistle, adding, "Everyone from the coaching staff to the players contributed to this achievement."

For his part, Duhok coach Bassem Qasem had this to say afterwards: "We're pretty satisfied with what we've achieved this season and that we have third place to show for it. We won the match with a solitary goal but could have scored more." 

Several of the county's big-name clubs had campaigns to forget, including Al-Zawraa, who despite boasting a record 11 league titles, could only finish fourth behind Al-Talaba in Group 2. Equally disappointed were Baghdad's other traditional power, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, who could do no better than third in Group 1.