Bahrain defied the odds to record a 2-1 win over much-fancied Kuwait on Wednesday, giving the Gulf nation the second spot in Group D - and a place in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup finals. Their opponents in the AFC play-off match for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ Germany, Uzbekistan, were also celebrating after a 2-0 triumph over Qatar also ensured qualification. However, they will be without star striker Maksim Shatskikh, who was sent off in the second half of the match.
The 2007 AFC Asian Cup finals will see 16 teams from the region battling for supremacy in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The decision to host the event in four different countries reduced the number of qualifiers from the group stages to 12 - with 24 teams harbouring hopes of playing in next year's event.
For 2004 Asian Cup semi-finalists Bahrain, the qualifying task was made even more difficult as they had been drawn to face Australia and Kuwait in the group stage. Following two defeats to the Socceroos and a goalless draw in Kuwait, they needed a win in their final match to advance to the finals.
At a sold-out Manama National Stadium in Bahrain, it was the visitors who started brightly, but cheered on by a vociferous home crowd, Bahrain moved into the ascendancy and were 2-0 up inside 43 minutes. Captain Talal Yousuf had a hand in both goals, opening the scoring with a 34th minute penalty before teeing Salman Issa up for the second. Faraj Laheeb pulled one back for Kuwait but try as they might, an equaliser was not forthcoming. Bahrain's win put them level on points with Kuwait, but they progressed by virtue of their head-to-head record.
Uzbeks leave it late
Joining Bahrain in celebratory mood were Uzbekistan. Despite being touted as favorites of Group F, a series of unconvincing displays, including a defeat to Qatar and two unlikely draws with Hong Kong, left the eastern Asian side looking nervously over their shoulder before their final match.
However, a convincing 2-0 win over Qatar put paid to any lingering doubts. Leonid Koshelev and former Juventus player Ilyas Zeytullaev were on the scoresheet. Despite the loss, Qatar ended top of the group.
The other matches played on Wednesday were more about maintaining momentum and boosting morale than anything else, and defending champions Japan managed to do just that with a 3-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in Sapporo. Striker Kazuki Ganaha scored either side of the break after Marcus Tulio Tanaka's first half opener to ensure Japan ended top of Group A. Yasser Al Qahtani handed the Saudis a consolation from the penalty spot in the 33rd minute, but the night ended on a sour note when AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari was sent off in the final minute.
The pressure was on China to finish what has been an indifferent campaign on a positive note and secure a win to appease the country's demanding fans and media. However, Zhu Guanghu's men again failed to deliver, eking out a 1-1 draw at home to Iraq, with Ahmed Salah cancelling out Han Peng's first half goal.
Meanwhile, an Iranian side containing almost all its Europe-based stars disposed of a second-string Korea Republic team with two second half goals to top their group in the final Asian Cup qualifier. With both sides having already qualified for the Asian Cup finals, national pride was the biggest incentive - no small matter for Iran, bidding to rouse their fanatical home support after a disappointing showing at Germany 2006.
In other matches, Yemen defeated India 2-1, Syria ran out 3-0 winners over Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong scored two goals without reply against Bangladesh. In Group C, there were victories for the home teams: Jordan defeated Oman 3-0, while UAE enjoyed a narrow 3-2 victory over Pakistan.
The draw for the AFC Asian Cup 2007 will take place on 19 December.
Matchday 6 results
Yemen 2 - 1 India
Japan 3 - 1 Saudi Arabia
Syria 3 - 0 Chinese Taipei
Iran 2 - 0 Korea Republic
Jordan 3 - 0 Oman
UAE 3 - 2 Pakistan
Bahrain 2 - 1 Kuwait
China 1 - 1 Iraq
Singapore - Palestine (Match cancelled. Result to be determined by AFC)
Hong Kong 2 - 0 Bangladesh
Uzbekistan 2 - 0 Qatar