Mahmood Abdulrahman's second-half strike secured victory for Bahrain over Uzbekistan at Bahrain National Stadium to keep alive their hopes of a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The hosts held on for the win despite playing the final 11 minutes a man light following the sending off of Abdulla Al Marzooq. The victory means the Gulf nation finish third in Group A of Asian qualifying and will face the third-placed side in Group B in a play-off. The winner of that game will tackle New Zealand for a place in South Africa 2010.
The game got off to a slow start as both sides looked cautious, but it was the hosts who produced the first real chance in the 12th minute when Ismail Abdullatif's low shot had the goalkeeper beaten, but went narrowly wide of the far post. Abdullatif threatened again minutes later when he was picked out inside the box by Mohamed Hubail, but the forward's shot from point-blank range was superbly denied by Ignatiy Nesterov.
Uzbekistan were finding themselves on the back foot for the much of the first half, although Stanislav Andreev's low cross in the 32nd minute caused problems before the Bahrain defence cleared the danger. But the hosts should have taken the lead shortly before the break when first Abdullatif was denied by a fine save from Nesterov before Alaa Hubail was then denied by the shot-stopper.
Bahrain had Sayed Mohamed to thank for ensuring they did not fall behind shortly after the restart when the defender acrobatically cleared Andreev's effort off the line. Alaa Hubail failed to get on a cross from Abdulla Omar just before the hour mark while Alexander Geynrich was denied at the last second from putting the Uzbeks ahead by Sayed Jaafar in the 72nd minute.
It was to prove a crucial save as Bahrain took the lead two minutes later when Abdulrahman rattled home a fine left-foot drive from a free-kick. Al Marzooq was dismissed with 11 minutes remaining for a strong challenge on Sahob Juraev, but the hosts defended their slender lead resolutely to ensure they took the three points at the final whistle.
The player who scored the goal, the No. 13 [Abdulrahman] changed everything. He was brilliant.
Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov was graceful in defeat and acknowledged that Bahrain played better and deserved a place in the next round.
"We made a lot of mistakes and the weather was awful for us," said Kasimov, who was the captain of the team when Uzbekistan lost to Bahrain in the final Asian zone playoff on the away goal rule four years ago.
"The player who scored the goal, the No. 13 [Abdulrahman] changed everything. He was brilliant," said Kasimov. "He converted a good chance into a great goal. It decided everything. Even if Edwin Van Der Sar [Manchester United goalkeeper] was in goal, he could not have stopped it."
Bahrain coach Milan Macala attributed the victory to some fine teamwork and tremendous support shown by fans and officials.
"It was a very difficult week as we had so much to do. We traveled to Sydney and came back and had very little time to plan," the 64-year-old Czech said. "We had some very important moments in the first-half but we missed at least four good chances. That gave Uzbekistan a chance to go for victory.
"But in the second-half everything changed. Abdulrahman came in as a substitute and controlled the game well before scoring for us," said Macala. "I thank the players, officials and fans for all the support. It helped us a lot in our aim to qualify."
Bahrain next play Saudi Arabia, the third-placed team from Group 2, over two legs in September. The winners advance to a home and away playoff against Oceania winners New Zealand in October and November for a place in South Africa 2010.
Bahrain, one of the most improved sides in Asia in recent times, have never qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals, but came close four years ago. They won the Asian playoff against Uzbekistan before being beaten by Trinidad and Tobago in an inter-confederation playoff.