x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bahrain standing on verge of history

A fierce rivalry will be renewed tonight and the play-off with Saudis brings back painful memories of loss to Trinidad & Tobago.

Bahrain's Salman Isa leads the team off the pitch after losing to Trinidad & Tobago. It is a scene they hope is not repeated against Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain's Salman Isa leads the team off the pitch after losing to Trinidad & Tobago. It is a scene they hope is not repeated against Saudi Arabia.

It is November 2005. Amid a hail of plastic bottles, Bahrain's national team laid scattered across the pitch of the National Stadium in Manama. On the other side, the opposition embarked in a frenzied, euphoric celebration. The full house began to drift away, angry that they had seen Bahrain blow their once-in-a-lifetime chance to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals. After a 17 game qualification streak, it was a single goal by Trinidad & Tobago's Dennis Lawrence that saw Bahrain fall at the final hurdle in a winner takes all play-off.

It was a remarkable achievement that Bahrain even got that far, to within one match, one goal, of the finals. Bahrain, after all, is a country with a population of just 700,000. They would have easily been the smallest nation to have ever qualified. You could be forgiven for thinking that the narrow miss was a once in a generation thing. But tonight Bahrain have, amazingly, another chance of making it to the World Cup finals. After finishing third in their World Cup qualifying group, Bahrain now take on rivals Saudi Arabia in a two legged play-off, with the winner playing Oceania's champions, the eminently beatable New Zealand.

It is arguably the biggest match that the region has seen in years, given an extra dimension thanks to the intense geographical and cultural rivalry between the two countries: ask any Bahraini taxi driver what he thinks of the visiting Saudis and you will get short shrift. In footballing terms the two teams have battled out a host of bizarre and ill-tempered matches since their first meeting in a World Cup qualifier in 1982, and both coaches are under huge pressure to deliver a berth in the finals, the pinnacle of world football.

For Milan Macala, the veteran Czech tactician who once managed the Green Falcons, this is perhaps his last chance of making it to the finals with a team still motivated by that loss in Manama almost four years ago. Now, alongside the likes of attacking wing back Salman Issa, Macala can call on a fresh generation of players like Jaycee John and Abdulla Fatadi, not to mention free-kick specialist Mahmoud "Ringo" Abdulrahman, who scored twice against Uzbekistan in the group stages and grabbed another in Bahrain's hugely impressive warm-up victory against Iran.

Bahrain are certainly the form team, losing only twice since January and narrowly losing 1-0 to a superb Inter Milan side last month. The same Inter side recently dispatched AC Milan 4-0. The Saudis, however, enjoy qualification as the rule, not the exception. But the Green Falcons struggled in a group that claimed one high profile victim in Iran. Portuguese manager Jose Peseiro steered them into the sudden death play-off but despite having arguably the best domestic league in the region and in striker Yasser al Qahtani one of the finest footballers in Asia, they have never looked comfortable at any stage of qualification.

Pedigree will count for little when the two teams take to the pitch in Manama's seething National Stadium tonight, before the teams make the return journey to Riyadh in four days. For the Saudis, missing out on a fifth consecutive World Cup appearance would hurt. For the Bahrain fans and players still haunted by four years ago, defeat is unthinkable. sports@thenational.ae AD Sports, Dubai Sports, 9.30pm