Kuala Lumpur: Football tends to offer a lot in the way of dramatic endings. Round five of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers gave us just that when Bahrain and Saudi Arabia faced-off with a place in the Intercontinental Play-off at stake.
New Zealand, triumphant in the OFC Qualifiers, awaited the winners between 2007 AFC Asian Cup runners-up Saudi Arabia and their neighbours Bahrain who had come within a whisker of reaching the FIFA World Cup in their previous attempt four years earlier.
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Lead by veteran Czech coach Milan Máčala, Bahrain’s qualification campaign got off to a smooth start as they cruised past Malaysia 4-1 on aggregate in the first round; a round the Saudis were spared courtesy of their position as one of the AFC's top five ranked sides.
Pitted in Group B of the third round alongside Japan, Oman and Thailand, Bahrain recorded a memorable 1-0 win over Japan en route to accompanying the Samurai Blue to the next round. In turn, Saudi Arabia went unbeaten to join Uzbekistan as qualifiers from Group D which also featured Singapore and Lebanon.
Next stop was the two-group fourth round, with Bahrain bettering Qatar and Uzbekistan to finish third behind unbeaten Australia and Japan, the two sides who booked direct tickets to South Africa 2010. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, were unfortunate to miss on direct qualification after DPR Korea pipped them to second place on goal difference to accompany their neighbours Korea Republic to the Finals. Saudi Arabia finished a point ahead of Islamic Republic of Iran to get third spot and a date with Bahrain in the play-off.
Goalless In Manama
September 5th, 2009. In front of 16,000 fans at Bahrain National Stadium, the home team took the game to the Saudis half, throwing attack after attack at their opponents, with no less than 18 corner kicks for Bahrain by the time the final whistle arrived, yet to the dismay of the locals, there would be no breaking the opposition's defences and the task would have to be done the hard way in Riyadh.
Roaring in Riyadh
The Bahraini team arrived for the second leg needing either a win, or a score draw - but were away to a team that hadn’t missed a single FIFA World Cup since their debut in 1994.
What happened next was nothing short of extraordinary. Just 13 minutes into the game, Yasser Al Qahtani played a ball through to Mohamed Noor, who expertly flicked it into the path of an incoming Nasser Al Shamrani - the latter put a foot out to peg the ball into the net under pressure from an onrushing keeper and centre-back.
A few minutes before half-time, Jaycee John equalised for Bahrain after a sublime through ball reached Abdullah Omar, who crossed low for John to tap in.
Heart Stopping Time
The referee signalled for an added three minutes, and with the game tied at 1-1, Bahrain were seemingly on course to go through to the play-off.
One minute into stoppage time, Saud Kariri played a high ball into the area that looked like it would bounce out of play - only for Al Qahtani to race in behind the defence and keep it alive by crossing it back into the six yard box, and 2005 AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al Muntashari headed in from close range. The tables had turned in the Greens’ favour, but the drama was not over yet.
As soon as the goal was scored, Saudi Arabia looked like scoring another - Noor played Malek Muath in behind the defence, with Muath struggling for balance and going down under a challenge - the ball was then lost, and a Bahrain charge to the other side of the pitch began with a series of passes.
Saudi Arabia ended up conceding a corner, which was taken quickly by Salman Eissa, and Ismail Abdullatif’s resulting header leveled the tie in the dying embers of the game.
Parity was restored, but the away goals rule meant Bahrain advanced to the next stage for the first time ever.
It was deja vu for Bahrain as they came agonisingly close to booking their ticket to South Africa, but as they did in 2006, the Reds fell one goal short after losing 1-0 in Wellington against New Zealand, having drawn 0-0 at home in Riffa, Bahrain.
With June traditionally a month for national team competitions, the-AFC.com will highlight several of Asian football's classic matches over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
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