Bahrain play host to New Zealand in the first leg of the Asia-Oceania play-off with both teams in touching distance of a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and hoping to create their own piece of history in the process. Just 180 minutes separates Bahrain from a debut on world football's grandest stage, the smallest nation ever to do so, while New Zealand hope to end a 28-year wait since their much-vaunted achievement in reaching Spain 1982.
Coach Milan Macala's team are no strangers to the white-hot heat of an intercontinental play-off having narrowly failed to overcome Trinidad & Tobago four years ago. It is 11 months since the New Zealanders took to the field in a FIFA World Cup qualifier but they will have benefitted greatly from their experiences at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. Join FIFA.comas we take a closer look at Saturday's intriguing match-up.
The stakesBahrain has endured a lengthy qualification campaign resulting in Milan Macala's unit being battle-hardened and cohesive. The Bahrainis have lost just twice at home falling to Japan and Australia, the latter occasion in the most unlucky circumstances. The National Stadium in Bahrain will provide a somewhat unfamiliar backdrop for the Kiwis who have rarely ventured to the Middle East, though their most recent international outing was a 3-1 over Jordan in Amman.
While the Kiwis do not have the same FIFA World Cup experience as their opponents, they are led by New Zealand footballing deity in coach Ricki Herbert and his assistant Brian Turner, both of whom were key figures in New Zealand's elongated, but ultimately successful, qualification push nearly three decades ago. That campaign involved an astonishing 5-0 win in Saudi Arabia, with current All Whites vice-captain Tim Brown describing the achievement as "inspirational" and "the stuff of legend".
The preparationThe 22-strong Bahrain squad trained together for the first time on Tuesday with the arrival of Qatar-based defensive duo Faouzi Aaish and Mohammed Hussain, the last of nine players based offshore to arrive. The New Zealanders spent the week in Dubai and are injury-free but will miss the surety offered by the presence of regular goalkeeper Glen Moss absent through suspension.
To enhance their potency up front Herbert called in four combative overseas-based strikers in the shape of Plymouth Argyle's Rory Fallon, Celtic's Chris Killen, in-form goal-sneak Shane Smeltz of Gold Coast United, plus tall West Bromwich Albion youngster Chris Wood. Despite possessing a forward line with a physical presence, the Kiwis will find the home team's goal protected by an equally imposing backline.
Players to watchShoring up Bahrain's attacking line alongside Belgium-based Jaycee John is the dynamic Ismail Abdullatif, scorer of the dramatic injury-time equaliser against Saudi Arabia which catapulted the Bahrainis into the play-off. The 23-year-old striker is capable of playing on the flanks or in a central role, and has a knack for scoring crucial goals.
Kiwi supporters faced an anxious wait after defensive cornerstone Ryan Nelsen was ruled out of Blackburn Rovers' match against Arsenal last weekend due to a back injury. But the 31-year-old captain has been declared fit, providing New Zealand with much-needed experience and a psychological boost. The only All White currently competing in the Premier League, Nelson provides leadership as well as a presence at set-pieces.
6 - Bahrain scored just six times across eight matches in the final stage of South Africa 2010 qualifying. Of the ten teams across the two groups, only Qatar and Uzbekistan scored fewer goals. Milan Macala will be desperately hoping his strikers find a cutting edge in front of goal with the margins over the two matches likely to be tight.
The words"We have played many games and have gained a lot of experience this year. We are aware that New Zealand are serious opponents and we can't underestimate them. However, having carefully analysed their style of play we know we can use our strengths to move forward," Milan Macala, Bahrain coach.
"The players are now in their twenties and some of them late twenties so there is a lot of experience, and in games like this we need to tap into that experience of playing in big leagues around the world because we'll need it on Saturday night," Brian Turner, New Zealand assistant coach.