Bahrain beating the odds
For the first time, Asia could have a fifth representative at the FIFA World Cup finals next summer and that team could be Bahrain.
After edging past Uzbekistan in the Asian play-off, Bahrain now face just one remaining hurdle in the shape of Trinidad and Tobago, the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF region. Bahrain will travel to the Caribbean for the first leg on 12 November before welcoming T&T to Manama four days later for a match that, for one team or the other, will see the realisation of an unlikely dream.
In a sense, Bahrain have already achieved the improbable. The sight of their coach, Luka Peruzovic, shedding tears in the post-match celebrations after their goalless draw in Manama had secured victory on away goals told its own story. After all, Bahrain, AFC Asian Cup semi-finalists in 2004, won just one match in their final stage group, where they finished third behind Japan and Iran.
Then there were the circumstances of their play-off success. Peruzovic's charges may have gone into the tie against Uzebkistan as slight favourites, having beaten the Central Asian team in last year's Asian Cup quarter-finals, but it was the Uzbeks who were the better side in their first-leg meeting on 3 September, winning 1-0. However, that result was declared void after the Uzbek authorities appealed to FIFA over a mistake by Japanese referee Toshimitsu Yoshida, who ruled out an Uzbekistan penalty for encroachment and incorrectly awarded Bahrain an indirect free-kick.
When the teams replayed the fixture in Tashkent on 8 October, Bahrain drew first blood through Talal Yusuf's 17th-minute strike and although the hosts equalised within two minutes, that opening goal would ultimately decide the tie.
Solid defence send Bahrain through
Bahrain's success has been built on a solid defence. They showed their potential by earning a 0-0 draw with Iran in their opening final round match in February and reproduced that form against Uzbekistan. "I just can't believe it," said Peruzovic after the goalless second leg. "In the second half I feared we might throw everything away but our team defended gallantly and made it."
Uzbekistan coach Bobby Houghton admitted: "They attacked but did not leave any spaces for us to exploit. Generally speaking they were the better side tonight." With Hussein Ali Hassan in goal, lanky defender Sayed Adnan led a well-organised back line that also consisted of Salman Isa, Mohamed Juma and Abdulla Marzooq. Midfielders Yusuf and Mohamed Hubail started off the attacks behind forward Husain Ali and their lightning raids on the counter threatened Uzbekistan's goal throughout the entire 90 minutes.
Striker Ali admitted afterwards that Bahrain had the chances to have won more comfortably. "I am afraid I missed at least three good chances in the opening ten minutes. Although we drew, I think we deserve to win by two clear goals - we missed a handful of chances but thankfully we still ended up winning."
With a place in Germany in their sights, the Gulf side may require a more ruthless touch in their play-off against T&T next month after all who knows when they may get another chance like it?