RIYADH // Ismail Abdullatif's last-minute equaliser against Saudi Arabia earned Bahrain an intercontinental play-off against New Zealand and another shot at qualifying for next year's World Cup. Abdullatif scored in the third and last minute of injury time to force a 2-2 draw, enough for Bahrain to advance on the away-goals rule to a two-legged play-off against the Oceania champions New Zealand on October 10 and November 14.
Bahrain have never qualified for the World Cup - missing out at the intercontinental play-off stage last time following a 2-1 aggregate loss to Trinidad and Tobago - ended Saudi Arabia's run of four straight World Cup appearances. The Saudis, who missed out an automatic qualifying through Asia due to scoreless home draw against North Korea in July, had been seconds away from advancing. Nasser Al Shamrani gave hosts the lead after 13 minutes at Riyadh's King Fahd Stadium but Jaycee John equalised three minutes before half-time. Hamad Al Montashiri broke the 1-1 deadlock in the first minute of injury time and, with Saudi fans celebrating an apparent progression, Abdullatif headed in Salman Isa's corner kick for the draw.
The first match of the final Asian qualifier ended in a scoreless draw at Manama. Bahrain will now host New Zealand next month before travelling to Wellington for the return match in November. Bahrain attacked from the start and almost took the lead after three minutes when defender Faouzi Aaish had a free kick tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Waleed Abdulla. The home side had a chance two minutes later through 2007 Asian player of the year Yasser Al Qahtani, who collected a good cross from 2009 Saudi league top scorer Al Shamrani but had his shot stopped by Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Mohammed Jaffer.
Saudi did capitalise on its next opportunistic chance when Al Qahtani started the initiative with a neat pass to Mohammed Noor. Noor set up the unmarked Al Shamrani, who scored despite late tackle from two Bahraini defenders. The Saudis had further chances before Bahrain's Belgium-based striker John, who only played in the last 10 minutes of the Manama match on the weekend, scored from a right-wing cross by Abdulla Omar.
Bahrain went into the match without two influential players due to suspensions. Muharraq Club midfielder and skipper Mohamad Salmeen picked up a second yellow card during last Saturday's first-leg qualifier. Kuwait FC defender Abdulla Al Marzooqi, who was also absent in last week's game in Manama, served the second and final game of his ban following his dismissal against Uzbekistan in the fourth round of Asian qualifying.
The New Zealanders tuned up for the World Cup play-off match with a 3-1 win over Jordan in a friendly at Amman. * AP