Group 5 of the Asian third round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was an all-West Asian affair, with Iran, Kuwait, the UAE and Syria squaring off. All of these nations had qualified for the main event in the past with the exception of Syria, but it was Iran, three-time veterans of the finals tournament, who started as favourites, with their goal-scoring hero Ali Daei now in the role of head coach.
UAE 1-3 Syria, Al Ain, 22 June
Going into the final matchday, Bruno Metsu's UAE were three points clear of third-placed Syria, and could seal progression as long as they avoided losing by three clear goals at home. It looked a simple task, but the lively Syrians made it a nervous afternoon for the men from the Emirates. Jehad Al Hussein scored either side of half-time to give the Syrians real hope of pulling off the biggest shock of the Asian qualifiers, before Emirates star Ismail Matar settled his team's nerves with a goal in the 80th minute. Nevertheless, in the ninth minute of injury time, Sanharib Malki struck again to cap a memorable victory for Syria, even though they fell just short of their qualification goal.
The critical match
UAE 0-1 Iran, Al Ain, 7 June
Iran's campaign began badly, with three draws, two of them at home, and considerable criticism for the inexperienced coach Daei. The Emirates, by comparison, had started solidly and headed the group on goal difference from Syria. Surely this was the cue for Metsu's men to pile further misery upon the Iranians? It was not to be. Ferydoon Zandi struck for the away side in the eighth minute, and Ali Daei's men hung on grimly to claim their first, precious win of the campaign. It proved to be the first of three, as Iran stormed to the finish line.
The star players
The unquestioned star of this group was the Emirates' prolific striker Ismail Matar, who not only scored that vital 'consolation' goal against Syria, but scored the first two goals in a thrilling 3-2 away win over Kuwait, which put the latter out of contention. For the Iranians, the hero was at the back: big Saipa defender Seyed Jalal Hosseini, who proved a stalwart for the group favourites.
With Kuwait, the UAE and Syria all vying for second spot after Iran began to pull away from the pack, the tension at the Thamer Stadium for Kuwait's Matchday 5 home game against the UAE was indescribable. The Emirates struck twice in the first half, but the home side, under new coach Mohamed Ibrahim, pulled two goals back in the second period. The match looked headed for a draw, but up popped Saif Mohamed in stoppage time to score an unlikely winner for Bruno Metsu's side. With that, the UAE leapt into second spot - and Kuwait went out.