History is set to be created regardless of the victor in Saturday’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Asia/Oceania play-off between New Zealand and Bahrain in Wellington. The New Zealand capital will play host to a match that will provide a new chapter in the annals of either New Zealand or Bahrain football.
For New Zealand, a win at the sold-out Westpac Stadium will mark the All Whites’s return to the global showpiece for the first time in 28 years since their FIFA World Cup debut at Spain 1982. Following a scoreless draw in Manama last month, visitors Bahrain know that a score draw will be enough to become the world’s smallest nation to progress to world football’s greatest stage.
After a resolute defensive showing in the first-leg, All Whites coach Ricki Herbert has vowed to show his team’s offensive strengths in what has been dubbed by local media as the nation’s “most important match in 27 years”. The visitors, despite failing to convert their dominance into a first-leg home win, have significant experience in their line-up and are led by wily Czech mentor Milan Macala.
Bahrain enter the contest seeking their first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup but it is their second consecutive appearance in the intercontinental play-off stage. The Bahrainis narrowly losing to Trinidad and Tobago four years ago, when Dennis Lawrence famously headed the only goal in the second leg sealing the CONCACAF side’s qualification at the Gulf nation's expense. With another qualifying decider awaiting them, the Bahrainis know all too well that old lessons must be learned if they are to make amends this time around.
Though the home side have only limited recent experience against Asian opposition, the greatest moment in All Whites history is heavily intertwined with the continent. In the 15-match qualification campaign for Spain 1982, New Zealand stunned Saudi Arabia 5-0 before outstripping China 2-1 to book qualification. A regular fixture in the line-up was none other than current All Whites coach Ricki Herbert, whose experience in the emotion-charged atmosphere of a FIFA World Cup qualifier will be invaluable.
Herbert has been blessed by the availability of all his players allowing the entire 18-man squad from the first leg in Manama to be retained. An added bonus is the recent scoring form of the overseas-based contingent, with even captain Ryan Nelsen grabbing a rare goal in Blackburn Rover's Premier League win last weekend. Also last weekend, striker Rory Fallon scored the winner against Doncaster which fired his Plymouth Argyle out of the drop zone in the English Championship. At the same time, Shane Smeltz continued his remarkable form in the A-League with the winner for Gold Coast United against leaders Sydney FC.
In contrast, Bahrain will sorely miss striker Ala’a Hubail, who tore cruciate ligaments in his right knee just days after the first-leg. Another forward, Hussail Ali is also in recovery mode from a knee injury, limiting Macala’s striking options. Despite the difficulties, the side skippered by Mohamed Salmeen proved they still have firepower after routing 2006 FIFA World Cup finalists Togo 5-1 in a recent friendly.
Players to watch
With a FIFA World Cup berth on the line, the Kiwis will be buoyed by a record 35,000 home crowd. Spearheading the attacking line will be the 28-year-old Smeltz, who won A-League's Golden Boot last season with 12 goals. He has maintained his prolific form this season, scoring eleven goals in only nine matches for Gold Coast United.
Ismail Abdullatif, who scored a brace against Togo, is expected to fill the breach left by Hubail’s absence. The form of Abdullatif could prove key with the 23-year-old scorer of the dramatic injury-time equaliser against Saudi Arabia in the Asian play-off to set up the meeting with against Kiwis.
6 – The number of countries Milan Macala has coached with the 66-year-old yet to take a nation to the FIFA World Cup.
"There will be plenty of opportunities in the game and I expect it to be an open game. One goal may be enough for us but we never make it easy for ourselves," Milan Macala, Bahrain coach.
"We need to go into the game very much on the front foot and very positive. There needs to be that passion and adrenaline pumping through the veins or we haven't got the right people in the squad," Ricki Herbert, New Zealand coach.
The team having scored most goals over the two games will qualify for the next round. If both teams score the same number of goals over the two matches, the goals scored away will be counted as double. If the same number of goals is scored away or both matches end without any goals being scored, extra time of two periods of 15 minutes each will be played. If the scores are level after extra time, penalty kicks will be taken to determine the winner in accordance with the procedure described in the Laws of the Game.