IRAQ defeated Saudi Arabia 2-0 last night to make a winning start to their group 'B' campaign in the 21st Gulf Cup being played here in Bahrain.
A goal on either side of half-time lifted the Iraqis to the well-deserved victory. Salam Shakir scored the opener before Saudi defender Osama Hawsawi netted an own goal to peg the final outcome.
The result earned the Iraqis a share of first place on their division table alongside defending champions Kuwait. The Kuwaitis were also victorious in their opening match against Yemen yesterday, which they won with a similar score line.
With group 'B' highly regarded as the tougher and more open of the tournament's two groups, Iraq and Saudi headed into last night's clash at the Shaikh Khalifa Sports City Stadium in Isa Town with neither side heavily favoured over the other.
Iraq, however, showed from the start that they are a force to be reckoned with, controlling the early pace.
Shakir gave them the lead 18 minutes in with a glancing header off a long cross by teammate Ahmed Yaseen.
Yaseen's assist was perfectly hit into the bottom corner of goal, leaving Saudi goalkeeper Waleed Abdulla no chance for a stop.
The Iraqis did well to maintain their advantage heading into the break, but at the start of the second half, faced a revitalised Saudi Arabia who appeared threatening and who were pressing hard for an equalising goal.
The Saudis had a few good chances to level the scores, but Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri was up to the challenge.
Salem Al Dossary had a powerful shot from a couple of yards outside the box brilliantly collected by Sabri minutes after the re-start. The ball bounced once before the Iraqi stopper dove to the ground make the save.
Sabri then had another fine effort to preserve his side's one-goal lead, using his legs to keep out a close-range shot from Saudi's Osama Al Mawlid.
Al Mawlid had a fine solo run from near the half-field line into the box, and after a well-placed one-two, hit his shot a little too weak but just enough to trouble the Iraqi goalie.
Both attempts were arguably Saudi's best chances in the contest, as over the final half-hour the momentum gradually began to shift once more in favour of the Iraqis.
The game turned completely when Iraq were gifted their second goal thanks to Hawsawi's costly error.
The usually dependable veteran defender mistakenly headed a cross off a free-kick back into his own net, leaving goalkeeper Abdulla and the rest of his team stunned. His own goal virtually ended Saudi's hopes of making any kind of comeback, and the Iraqis did well to hold on over the game's closing stages and up until the final whistle.
Iraq's Shakir was later named the Man of the Match.
Iraq, coached by Hakeem Shaker, will hope to maintain their winning ways when they play their next group 'B' game against Kuwait on Wednesday. The tie promises to be a hotly contested affair, as both teams' hopes of securing semi-final qualification will be on the line.
Their clash gets underway at 4.15pm, and it will be played at the Shaikh Khalifa Stadium.
That same evening, Saudi and Yemen will both be looking to bounce back from their losses yesterday when they face off at 7.15pm at the same venue.
No matches are scheduled for today, but action resumes tomorrow with two games at the National Stadium in Riffa.
Qatar take on Oman at 4.15pm in the opening encounter, to be followed by hosts Bahrain battling the UAE in what could be a decisive fixture for the home team. The Bahrainis drew with their Omani counterparts in their opening game while the Emiratis disposed of their Qatari rivals to move to the top of group 'A'.
The Bahrain-UAE game is scheduled for a 7.15pm kick-off.