Iraq prodigy raring to upset adopted country
In a sense, Iraq striking-prodigy Mohannad Abdulraheem is caught up in a dilemma. Joining Al Nasr Dubai only in October, the 23-year-old has quickly found his feet after scoring twice in three matches, performances which see him on course to become a fan-favourite in the United Arab Emirates. But with Iraq facing UAE in Tuesday's Asian qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Abdulraheem shoulders the goalscoring tasks as they target three points against his adopted country.
Needless to say, it is a crucial game which the visitors can't afford to lose. With just three points from four matches, Iraq face an all but must-win scenario in Abu Dhabi against the hosts. With the competition reaching the midway mark, Abdulraheem is all too aware that they are left with no options but to win if they are to keep their already-diminishing hopes alive.
"We have a crucial match against UAE," said the 23-year-old, who bagged all four goals as they convincingly defeated Thailand 4-0 in the last outing. "I am hoping that we can build on our performances against Thailand with another good result. We need to do well against the hosts to restore our confidence and pull ourselves back into the contention for a ticket to Russia 2018."
Early promises As one of Asia's most promising stars, Abdulraheem's past needs little introduction. After winning the Most Valued Player awards first in the AFC U-19 Championship in 2012 and then being crowned that year's AFC Young Player of the Year, the Iraq prodigy continued to impress in the last AFC U-23 Championship in Qatar, where he scored a crucial equaliser against the hosts in the third-place playoff en route to qualification for this year's Olympic Football Tournaments.
Heading to the global showpiece, Abdulraheem told FIFA.com in a previous interview what inspirations he can draw from Iraqi legend Ahmed Radhi, who scored their only goal in their only World Cup at Mexico 1986. He said: "I want to keep improving and follow in the footsteps of the great Iraq forwards who shone during the 1970s. We've produced several fantastic strikers like Ahmed Radhi, Ali Kadhim and so on. I hope to have as much success as them."
Not surprisingly, Abdulraheem entered Rio 2016 with much to realise. Although his team bowed out with three draws, the talented predator showcased what he is capable of in front of the watching world. After opening with a 0-0 tie with Denmark, Abdulraheem and Co. went on to hold hosts and eventual champions Brazil to another goalless draw. And in astonishing fashion, he struck the post with a header as Iraq came so close to stunning a Neymar-captained Brazil. In the closing match against South Africa, Abdulraheem provided the assist for their equaliser as Iraq came from a goal down to earn a 1-1 draw. And they did have opportunities of progressing with a victory - Abdulraheem came close to bagging a match-winner after being denied by the woodwork again.
Senior coronation While only 23-years-old, Abdulraheem has earned 28 national team caps during which he has racked up 11 goals - six of which were scored in the ongoing Asian World Cup qualifying. He netted the precious match-winning goal against Vietnam in the closing match of second round qualifying, which narrowly sealed Iraq's progression to the next stage as one of the best runners-up. He opened the scoring in the second match against Saudi Arabia in the consequent last-12 campaign, only to see the rivals rally to pull off a 2-1 comeback victory.
But he was rampant against Thailand, scoring twice in each half as they produced the biggest win so far in the third round, a triumph which boosted their morale and re-ignited their hopes. "The win against Thailand was very important for us," he said. "It kept our hopes alive and I am happy to score goals and help in our win. I expected to score but I didn’t think that I would score four goals. It wouldn't have been possible had it not been for the help of my team-mates."
"We were under big pressure recently because we were affected negatively by the three opening defeats. But we proved that we have strong character and capable of handling tough situations."