Few Iranians would have more motivation to see off Saudi Arabia than coach Ali Daei when Team Melli host the Saudis on 28 March in Asia's final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010. Having been denied by Saudi Arabia in three FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, the Iranian goal king is understandably keen to settle a score this time around.
The Iranians will be desperate to collect three points after their hopes of taking one of the group's two automatic qualifying spots were dealt a severe blow when they were held to a 1-1 draw by leaders Korea Republic in their last outing, a result which saw Korea DPR move into second place. The match against the fourth-placed Saudis, however, provides them with a precious chance to return to the top two.
"We still have a chance to advance," was Daei's assessment after the stalemate with Korea Republic. He will know, however, that while Iran managed to earn a valuable share of the spoils with a 1-1 draw in Riyadh last September, all three points are likely to be required this time around.
Despite Daei's optimism, the fact remains that the Saudis have developed a habit of building their qualifying success on Team Melli's failure. Even the Iran coach's qualifying debut was marked by disappointment when he and his team-mates were defeated by the Saudis 4-3 in the historic decisive final match in Asia's qualifying for USA 1994. Despite Daei's emergence during this first campaign, which witnessed him grab four goals in five matches to top the tournament's scoring chart, the narrow loss saw Iran concede the group's only qualifying berth to the Saudis.
Though they ultimately qualified for France 1998, Daei and his team-mates again found the Saudis to be their nemesis four years later. Iran showed peak form early on in the campaign but it was their resilient opponents who performed consistently throughout, stealing four points from their two meetings before claiming the only automatic qualifying spot. The Iranians lost to Japan in a play-off to set up an intercontinental match-up with Australia, where they eventually triumphed to book their ticket.
It was almost a case of the opposite story in the next four-year cycle. Despite clinching four points against the Saudis, with Daei on target three times, Iran again paid the price for their lack of consistency. Leading the Saudis by a point going into the last round, Iran inexplicably lost 3-1 to Bahrain while Saudi Arabia registered a 4-1 home win over Thailand. The results sent Saudi Arabia through leaving Iran with a daunting play-off task against the Republic of Ireland, where they failed to work another miracle.
The Iranians will perhaps be buoyed by the absence of talismanic Saudi Yasser Al-Qahtani due to suspension, while Malek Maaz is injured, and the participation of both Khaled Aziz and Saud Khariri is also in doubt. Any concerns about complacency in the Iranian camp have been quickly dispelled, however, with veteran midfielder Karim Bagheri describing the match as "do-or-die".
National team attacking lynchpin Vahid Hashemian, who also figured in Iran's failed campaign for Korea/Japan 2002, warned his team of the potential Saudi backlash. "The Saudis have always been strong in the latter stages of qualifying, although I can't say why," the Bochum and Iran striker told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "And they will be determined to beat us under their new coach."
Yet despite the hard assignment facing them, Iran's players are well aware of what is required. "This is a life-or-death match for both the Saudis and ourselves, and we need a win," said Mehdi Mahdavikia, who is expected to return for the crunch tie. "Qualifying for the World Cup requires collective efforts and I will do my utmost."