Mon, Jul 23, 2007 - Page 20 News List

Iraq beat Vietnam to reach semis


Captain Younis Mahmoud scored twice and Iraq progressed to the semi-finals of the Asian Cup for the first time since 1976 with a 2-0 win over Vietnam on Saturday, extending the war-torn nation's impressive run in the tournament.

Iraq, having snapped a run of three successive exits at the quarter-final stage, will next play the winner of today's quarter-final between Iran and South Korea in Kuala Lumpur.

The result meant all four tournament co-hosts are now out.

Iraq took the lead in just the second minute, as their two star players combined. A long freekick by Nashat Akram into the penalty area found Mahmoud unmarked and he glanced a header into the net.

Vietnam, stunned by the early setback, almost conceded a second in the fifth minute when the defense allowed Nashat to stride forward unchallenged, but his long-range shot went just wide.

Vietnam did not manage a shot on target until the 19th minute, as Iraq settled into a comfortable pattern with their defense marshaled professionally by Jasim Mohammed Gholam.

Iraq were forced into an early substitution, with midfielder Haitham Kadhim coming off in the 32nd minute, just after receiving a strong challenge that appeared to injure his right foot.

Vietnam's only real chance in the match came just before half-time. A break down the left saw the ball cut back to Vu Phong Nguyen, and his on-target shot was blocked by defenders gathering near the goal line.

Phong came close to scoring six minutes into the second half when his curling freekick from near the corner flag caught Iraqi keeper Noor Sabri off balance, and he was forced to punch clear as the ball threatened to drift into the net.

Iraq doubled their lead in the 65th minute, as a perfectly-hit Mahmoud freekick curled over the Vietnam wall, beyond the reach of Duong Hong San and into the net.

Mahmoud almost had his hat-trick in the 77th minute, as he headed a nicely-weighted Mehdi Karim cross toward the bottom corner of goal, with Duong diving to turn it around the post.

The sun is sinking behind the palm trees and dusty streets of west Baghdad, blue sky dissolving into twilight, as gunfire suddenly erupts across the city -- Iraq's soccer team has defeated Vietnam 2-0.

The thrill of the Asian Cup quarter-final victory takes hold and for a few hours the sectarian and political differences tearing the country apart are drowned out in a roar of national unity.

"Everyone in the country follows football, even with our current problems," said Ammar, 30, a shop owner.

"If you turn on the television you will see the same thing in Adhamiyah, Kadhimiyah, Hai al-Jamaa. They will be out in the streets waving flags," he said, rattling off the names of some of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods.

"Whether we are happy or sad we fire guns in the air," his 37-year-old friend Ali added with a sly smile. "We are always going to war."

In December and January around 200 Sunni Muslim families were evicted from al-Hurriyah in a campaign of terror spearheaded by the Shiite Mahdi Army, for whom it is now a stronghold, US military commanders in the area said.

The militias would have pushed into neighborhoods farther south, but a flood of US and Iraqi troops into the capital, part of a five-month-old Baghdad security plan, has -- at least temporarily -- frozen the city's fault lines.

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