FIFA U-17 WC: Mali hopes to deliver a killer blow to Dawood-less Iraq

Mohammad Dawood - Iraq's leading goal-scorer this World Cup - will be serving a suspension after picking up a second yellow card in the team's 4-0 defeat against England in the group stages.

Most players of the Iraq U-17 team will have happy memories of their last outing here at the Fatorda stadium where the Western Asian nation lifted its maiden AFC U-16 championship last year.   -  K. Murali Kumar

Most players of the Iraq U-17 team will have happy memories of their last outing here at the Fatorda stadium where the team lifted its maiden AFC U-16 championship last year.

But this time around, it has been dealt a huge blow even before the kick-off in its Round-of-16 encounter against Mali on Tuesday.

Mohammad Dawood - Iraq's leading goal-scorer this World Cup - will be serving a suspension after picking up a second yellow card in the team's 4-0 defeat against England in the group stages. Dawood has been the focal point of Qahtan Al-Rubaye’s side, and his pace, energy and strength will be sorely missed.

And the coach will call upon his reserves to deliver the goods in his absence. “Mohammed is important but (he is) a member of this group. We have players who will replace him and will play a good match tomorrow,” said Al-Rubaye at the pre-match press conference.

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In comparison, Mali has had five different goal-scorers. The Mali coach Jonas Komla, however, was mindful of the threat the Iraqi side could pose even without its in-form striker. “It doesn’t change our philosophy; we won’t change the style of playing. Iraq is a strong team with or without the player and we will be respectful of that,” said Komla.

The African champion has fired the most number of shots on goal (85) in the tournament so far, with forward Lassana N’Diaye having a raft of opportunities from which he has converted only thrice.

 

Mali has recovered well from its narrow loss to Paraguay in the opening match and has followed it up with facile wins over Turkey and New Zealand to progress to the last 16 stage. The no.3 Djemoussa Traore has been involved in four goals while joining the attack from midfield. Traore and Mamadou Samake have been potent in the counter-attack, breaking with pace and direct running, creating openings for Traore aplenty.

Iraq will acknowledge the danger posed by the Mali forward line having come up against a similar threat in the form of England in the last group game at Kolkata. In a brief five-minute spell on Saturday, Iraq's defence was opened up repeatedly with balls being played over its top. A better finishing might have had Iraq staring at a double-digit score-line.

Al-Rubaye had complained about the poor preparation coming into the tournament. It hasn’t helped that his players haven’t had enough time to recover for the crucial game. “I think it is only fair that every team gets equal days’ rest. But we will have to respect the rules and give our best,” said the former Iraqi national footballer.

The loss in the 2015 U-17 World Cup final is still fresh in the memories of Komla but he is banking on the positives to take this team forward. "The fact that we finished runner-up in Chile (2015) and that we are the African champion I see that as a positive pressure. Our ambitions haven't changed," said the coach.

While Iraq will be looking to upset the odds to reach its first ever World Cup quarterfinal in what is its second appearance in the marquee event, a powerful Mali side will look to stand in its way to achieve its own piece of history.

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