Iraq pull off massive upset to raise more doubts over Japan's Asian Cup credentials

Iraq pulled off a big upset at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup on Friday as they defeat Japan 2-1 courtesy of Aymen Hussein's first-half double. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

They may be former champions -- but not many had given Iraq much of a chance ahead of their second game at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup on Friday.

After all, they were coming up against record four-time winners Japan, who boast a star-studded lineup and are widely regarded as one of the tournament's leading contenders.

But with an inspired display -- initiated by two-goal hero Aymen Hussein and then backed up by every single one of his teammates -- Iraq pulled off what will go down as one of the upsets of the tournament with a 2-1 triumph.

In doing so, the Iraqis not only showed they could be mean business but also highlighted more potential inadequacies that could hinder the Samurai Blue's own title bid.

One of those issues is undoubtedly the lack of experienced goalkeepers at Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu's disposal, which was already highlighted in their opening 4-2 win over Vietnam.

After his error gifted the Vietnamese their second goal on Sunday, Zion Suzuki was given another chance to prove his worth as Moriyasu kept faith in the 21-year-old.

For the second game running, Suzuki did not cover himself in glory -- with a costly gaffe for the second game running allowing Iraq to take the lead after just five minutes, as he weakly palmed away a left-wing cross to allow Aymen to guide the loose ball into the back of an unguarded net.

Having started on the bench in Iraq's previous game against Indonesia, Aymen looked a man on a mission to ensure he keeps his spot in his team's starting XI.

Buoyed with his opening goal, he pressed the opposition centre-backs whenever they were in possession, chased down lost causes and held up the ball admirably despite being regularly outnumbered.

And in first half stoppage time, he got even more reward for his efforts as he once again showed more endeavour than anyone else inside the area to double his and his team's tally with another header.

Now in possession of a two-goal lead, the Lions of Mesopotamia were happy to sit back after the break and let Japan expend their energy in search of a way back into the contest.

There was a brief scare for the Iraqis when Japan were awarded a penalty but VAR came to their rescue, showing that Rebin Sulaka had indeed made a brilliant last-ditch tackle to deny Takuma Asano a shooting opportunity from just four yards out.

Rebin's effort epitomised the determined defensive display that would prove as crucial to the result as Aymen's brace, with every single Iraq player carrying out their duties to perfection.

For all the attacking talent in their ranks in the form of Asano, Takefusa Kubo, Takumi Minamino and later Ritsu Doan, Daizen Maeda and Ayase Ueda who were introduced from the bench, Japan really struggled to carve out any real meaningful chances.

Right at the end, it was an error in judgement by Iraq goalkeeper Jalal Hassan as he came out to deal with a corner only to find himself in no man's land that allowed Wataru Endo to pull one back for the Japanese.

It would ultimately prove to be a mere consolation.

With a second win in the bag and a place in the knockout round virtually secured, Iraq could just be dark horses at the tournament.

Meanwhile, it would be foolish to write Japan off on the back of one defeat, there can be no shying away from the fact that they have issues to solve.

Even more than they previously showed.