The 2007 champions twice come from behind to beat Vietnam 3-2 in their Group D opener at Abu Dhabi
Srecko Katanec left Zayed Sports City with mixed feelings as Iraq twice came from behind to beat Vietnam in their Asian Cup opener on Tuesday.
The former UAE manager, who took charge of Iraq just three months before the start of the continental competition, watched in horror as the 'Lions of Mesopotamia' conceded an own goal to trail 2-1 at half time.
But he was delighted with their second-half performance as they scored twice, including the winner less than a minute from time, to clinch the Group D encounter 3-2.
Ali Adnan Kadhim fired a free kick over the wall and into the back of the net from 25 metres, his winner sparking wild celebrations among Iraqi fans at the stadium while leaving Vietnam's players and supporters heartbroken.
But Katanec felt bittersweet at the end of the game.
“We didn’t see that personality on the pitch,” he said about his side's first-half performance. “It may be because it was the first game and the players were nervous."
Indeed, few would have expected Iraq to win given that less than half an hour into the absorbing contest the Vietnamese took the lead courtesy of an own goal.
Nguyen Quang Hai sent a through pass to Nguyen Trong Hoang when defender Ali Faez Atiyah came between him and goalkeeper Jalal Hassan, only to knock the ball into his own net on 24 minutes.
Iraq cancelled the lead 11 minutes later after a defensive error from Vietnam centre-back Do Duy Manh left Mohanad Ali Khadim with only keeper Dang Van Lam to beat, which he did with ease executing a low shot.
Vietnam regained the lead three minutes before half time when Nguyen Cong Phuong stabbed in a rebound after Jalal had blocked Quang Hai’s effort from inside the area.
Katanec's change in tactics bore fruit in the second half, as Iraq went on the offensive.
It took just one shot and two minutes on the pitch, since he came on as Osama Jabbar's replacement, for Iraq midfielder Humam Faraj to slam a rebound into the roof of the net. Iraq's 60th-minute equaliser proved the catalyst as the tide swiftly turned in their favour.
“The second half was far better. We didn’t concede a goal and we created more scoring chances, and also we didn’t allow our opponent any chances,” Katanec said.
He conceded, however, his players needed to raise their game. "I know we have many things to improve. Hopefully we can do that in our second game,” he said.
The Slovenian refused to take anything away from the Vietnamese, who were superb in the first half but came up short at the business end of the game.
“I wasn’t surprised by Vietnam’s performance,” Katanec said. “We have watched some of their matches and they are a very good side. They are young guys with a lot of speed and energy, and they run a lot.
“I expected a tough and difficult match, and it turned out to be exactly what I anticipated."
Park Hang-seo, his opposite number, also focused on the positives.
“It’s very hard to take this result when you lead twice and then lose in the last minute of the game," he said. "But I am very proud of my players.
“We already know Iraq are at a higher level than us. Had we got a point from this game, it could have been very useful for us," Park added. "However, that didn’t happen. Iraq showed a very good performance on the night.
"They may have been lucky in the last part of the game but they deserved that victory. Hopefully we can we’ll try to play better against Iran in the next game even though they are a much stronger opponent."
Vietnam face Iran at Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, while, Iraq face cup debutants Yemen in Sharjah. Both matches are on Saturday.