RIFFA // It is on such small margins that World Cup glory is won or lost. Jaycee John could barely hide his rage as Saudi Arabia's Waleed Abdulla denied him once again in added time. The Bahraini forward had been a late introduction in Riffa on Saturday night but in the 10 minutes he had been on the pitch, tearing through the exhausted Saudi backline with impunity, he had seen three of his chances repelled by the Saudi goalkeeper.
Abdulla's bravery in tipping over his deflected shot was rewarded with a collision with the post. John merely gave out an animalistic scream that reverberated around the stadium and kicked an imaginary ball, as if replaying the incident again and again in his head. The bare facts tell us the first leg of the two-legged World Cup play-off between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia ended in a goalless stalemate. But this was a game of two outstanding goalkeeping performances, a captivating second half, crippling cramp and, eventually, a miss that could well see Bahrain miss out on their first appearance at the World Cup finals.
The talk before the match was whether Saudi Arabia's World Cup pedigree would see them brush Bahrain aside. But the Bahrainis really should have won this match and could rue their missed chances if they fail to get a result in Riyadh on Wednesday. "The game was good and our players had an impressive game," said the Bahrain coach Milan Macala, and yet his pronouncement gave away a hint of disappointment. "To be honest, I don't know whether the result is good for us or not. We wasted a lot of chances and we were not fortunate."
Luck certainly was not on Macala's side. The match began slowly and both sets of players looked like they were wading through treacle. The Bahrainis, especially the excellent Salman Issa, were always the more threatening going forward yet every time they got close to breaking the deadlock, Abdulla denied them. At first it looked like Sayed Mohamed Adnan's towering header that crashed off the woodwork was simply an unlucky miss, but replays showed the Saudi keeper got the slightest of fingertips to it.
It was a stunning stop that, along with his last gasp denial from John, has handed the Green Falcons an advantage they scarcely deserve. Aside from a few long-range shots, dealt with comfortably by Sayed Jaffer in the Bahraini goal, and an ironclad Yasser al Qahtani penalty appeal that was somehow denied after he was cynically fouled in the penalty area, Bahrain edged proceedings. Saudi Arabia's Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro was certainly the happier of the two coaches when the final whistle sounded. "It was a positive game from both teams who tried to score and they showed this intention," he said. "We will give our best on Wednesday to win at home."
The Saudis will be all too aware of their home-leg advantage. The King Fahd International Stadium will see a partisan, 70,000 crowd demanding victory, a victory that would have been out of reach this morning but for Abdulla's heroics. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org