Bahrain and Japan booked their places in the final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ on Saturday following the Gulf side's bruising 1-1 draw with regional rivals Oman. Fouzi Aaish scored an opportunistic goal in the 41st minute to put Bahrain ahead while Oman equalised through Ismail Al Ajmi in the 72nd minute.
Bahrain remain at the top of Group Two with 11 points, one ahead of Japan, who also qualified following their 3-0 victory over Thailand earlier in the day. Oman, who had to beat Bahrain to keep their chances alive, have five points and Thailand on one are also out of the running.
For Bahrain it was another painstaking but praiseworthy step towards realising their long-cherished dream of playing in the FIFA World Cup, which eluded them four years ago when they lost out to Trinidad and Tobago in the final playoff.
This time around, Bahrain have had an impressive run going into the fourth and final round where the best 10 teams will be divided into two groups with the top two in each group booking automatic berths for the 2010 FIFA World Cup to be held in South Africa.
A physical affair
It was a bruising battle right from the start and also ill tempered under the typically stifling desert conditions. By the 15th minute both teams had made their intentions clear and also received a yellow card each (Ismael Latif for Bahrain and Ahmed Al Mukhaini for Oman).
Oman came close to scoring twice in the 35th minute when striker Emad Al Hoosani created a fine move, but Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Jaffer fisted the shot and the ball bounced back into play off the post. Hassan Yousuf tried again but by then the Bahraini defence had regrouped to avert any danger.
Aaish's opener came thanks to a left-foot volley driven towards goal from about 10 metres outside the penalty area, which beat diving Omani goalkeeper Ali Abdullah.
The second-half was a fierce tussle with Oman pressing hard for the equaliser and Bahrain alternating between some determined defending and sporadic attacking.
But the visitors looked sharper in attack and their perseverance paid off in the 72nd minute. A nice move down the centre shifted to the left as it approached the Bahraini goal. Saleh Mohammed and Al Ajmi converged into the striking area and had the Bahrain goalkeeper Jaffer at their mercy.
But the former unselfishly passed the ball to Al Ajmi running parallel and the latter made no mistake in beating the goalkeeper who had already moved in the wrong direction.
The equaliser unnerved Bahrain while it energised the visitors to go for the kill. They came close to scoring twice but on both occasions Bahrain goalkeeper Jaffer made brave saves in one-on-one situations.
Bahrain had its own share of misses and could have sealed the berth in the fourth round in emphatic style with a victory but missed a golden opportunity in injury time.